With four world championship gold medals, a gold and a bronze medal in Asian Para Games, over 45 international medals and a long-standing World No. 1 ranking in SL3 men’s singles, Pramod Bhagat headed to Tokyo as a firm favourite to win gold in Para badminton. The sport was finally making its debut in Paralympics and India’s No. 1 para shuttler grabbed the opportunity with both hands and reigned supreme.

“I was sure about my game and with my guru (coach Gaurav Khanna) by my side, I was confident that I will fly the Indian flag high. Even when I was trailing in the second set in the final (4-12), I didn’t think I would lose even for a fleeting second. It has been my dream for nearly 20 years and I am happy I could achieve it,” the 33-year-old, who began playing badminton at the age of 12, says.

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Bhagat contracted polio at the age of four which resulted in limited lower limb function. He competes in the SL3 category (Athletes play in standing position, have limited court coverage but full range of shots). “The pressure was more about safeguarding myself from Covid-19 while in Tokyo so that I don’t miss out on participation. I took extreme care, followed the protocol, and didn’t step out much from the room unless necessary. I am glad I was able to focus on the game despite the fear of the virus and come out on top,” he says.

India won four medals, including two golds, in para badminton. Bhagat believes there will be more in the next Paralympics. “Seven of us qualified. Since it was the first time it was included, we got limited slots. There are many who are ranked No. 4 or 5 but couldn’t go. We still managed to get four medals. We will definitely win at least six or seven medals in para badminton in Paris,” he says with confidence.

And with good reason too.

His coach’s eponymous Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy (GKBA) in Lucknow is dedicated to training para shuttlers. “Most of them train there, develop into great players there under the mentorship of Gaurav Khanna. There is unity in us. We train together, stay together and face everything together. We follow our seniors and help our juniors. We consider ourselves the best.”

That explains the celebratory jump and embrace of his coach after the final. “We lived the dream together. He stayed with us even during the Covid lockdown and trained us hard. My happiness knew no bounds when I won and I just wanted to share the moment with him,” he recollects.

Bhagat is among the four para athletes who have been nominated for the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award. “I knew a gold will earn me a Khel Ratna nomination. There are four others who have been nominated and all of us gave India proud moments, but I feel I will win it this time,” he says.

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Drums, fireworks, garlands, victory processions, cash awards, felicitation ceremonies — the celebrations haven’t stopped yet and Pramod is soaking it all in. “I didn’t expect this much hype. I am feeling like a star, a celebrity. It is a nice feeling. The most memorable moment has been to meet my idol Sachin Tendulkar. He appreciated me a lot, gifted me his jersey and wished well for my future. Sitting and having a one-on-one conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi also meant a lot,” he says.

He is hungry for more success after all the adulation. “People have showered me with so much love that my desires have only grown bigger. I can’t live in this bubble of success and leave behind the future. I am enjoying it for now, but eager to start preparing for the next goal soon. I want to raise the flag high again in Paris. I will work with renewed hunger in chasing that dream,” he signs off.