Pramod Bhagat says representing India at the Paralympics a dream come true

World number one Pramod Bhagat said he is focused on winning gold in badminton's Paralympics debut after officially qualifying for the Games in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Pramod Bhagat said he is focused on winning gold for India at the Tokyo Paralympics scheduled to be held from August 25 to September 5.

Three Indian para shuttlers, including world number one Pramod Bhagat, officially qualified for the Paralympics on Tuesday. The event is scheduled to be held from August 25 to September 5.

Besides Bhagat (SL3 — standing/lower limb impairment/minor), Tarun (SL4 — standing/ lower limb impairment/severe) and Nagar Krishna (SH6 — standing/short stature), too received invitations to participate in the Paralympics.

SL3 refers to minor standing or lower limb impairment, and SL4 means severe lower limb impairment, while SH6 refers to standing/short stature). Bhagat shares his thoughts on the forthcoming Paralympics in a chat with Sportstar.

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Q: How do you look at the Paralympics in Tokyo where you will be competing in (SL3 — standing/lower limb impairment/minor)?

The Tokyo Paralympics is one of the biggest stages I will have in my career. It is also the first time that badminton, as a sport, is being introduced. It is extremely important, and I have been training for the same all my life. It is like a dream come true for me. For the past year or so, I have been preparing with this in mind, though the whole plan was turned on its head by Covid. But that has not deterred me from training harder to achieve the gold medal for India. It is not going to be easy, but I am surely going to put in my 200 per cent and make India and all those who have supported me throughout my journey proud.

Q: What is the big difference you see in terms of competition and standard compared to the World championship or any other Asian championship?

All championships are equally tough. But Paralympics becomes a little more difficult because there is a lot of added pressure to win a gold medal. The biggest difference between a World Championship and Asian Championship is the variety of players who make the cut. Over the years the standard of para-badminton has been improving constantly. There have been some really interesting and tough players I have competed with who have pushed me to my limits. I relish these kinds of games as they also give me scope to keep improving my game and keep me on my toes.

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Q: With badminton being introduced for the first time, what kind of pressure and the biggest challenges do you face there?

This has been my dream since I have taken up badminton, to represent India in the Paralympics. There will be pressure on me to win gold in both Singles and Mixed Doubles where I am partnering with Palak Kohli. There has always been pressure on me to win and that has been my biggest motivator and has also pushed me to succeed and be at the top of my game. Every game is going to be a challenge, and I have been practising very hard over the past few years, working not only on my game but also on my physique, stamina and strategy. If I have to name one player who has always pushed me, that would be England’s, Daniel Bethel.

Q: How important is it for you to actually take part in the Paralympics?

It is very important as this is all I have been thinking since I was young. The Paralympics, just like the Olympics, is the biggest stage for any sportsperson. It is also an honour for me to represent my country on such a big stage, and winning the gold medal would be the icing on the cake. Representing India also lays the platform for more people like me to take up the sport and believe that anything is possible if you put in hard work and work relentlessly towards your goal.

Q: When you started playing the sport, did you ever visualise that one day you will be there in the Paralympics?

To be honest, I never thought I would come so far representing India. I took up the sport so that I could prove people wrong. A lot of people said I could never play badminton or any other sport because of polio, but I never gave up. The biggest challenge for me was not the game but changing the way people look towards para-athletes. I want my journey to inspire other people to take up the sport and excel the way I have done.

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Q: Can you trace the highs and lows of your career in the run-up to Tokyo?

2017 when I lost in the semifinals at the world championship in Korea, has been the lowest point of my career. It was very hurtful, and I took that up as a motivating factor and ever since then, there has been no looking back. I was much more hardworking and much more dedicated to my game. I kept improving and am still improving. Since that game, things have changed for me, I won the 2018 gold at the Asian championship and double gold at the 2019 world championship. I would say I have worked so hard on the game that ever since the loss, I have won most tournaments that I have played.

Q: What do you feel are the strengths, and how different will the Indian shuttlers in this category be compared to the others?

Especially in my category, all Indians are in the top 10, and all of us are constantly playing well. We train together, and our dedication level is also high. We are one team, and we strategise together. This is an added advantage for us. 

Q: Qualifying despite the pandemic throwing out of gear the competitive circuit gives you a special feeling? 

Qualifying for the first Paralympics is always special, irrespective of how it comes. It is something for which you have waited all your life. Last year has been difficult not just for me but for everybody. But that has not dampened my preparations. We should also understand that no one could have foreseen this, and it was important we all stay home and safe. This whole incident has given each one of us time to introspect and make the necessary changes to come out stronger. During the lockdown, I have been training at home and focusing on mental strength and this has made me go to any length to finish at the podium.

Q: How important is the World No. 1 ranking when you enter the Paralympics?

It is very important for me personally because it makes me feel that I have been competing and winning at the top level for some time now. Being No 1 gives you an automatic qualification for Paralympics. Having said that, it doesn’t guarantee you an easy draw. It all boils down to how well you perform every game as it is a knockout format.

Q: Winning two gold and a bronze in the Dubai Para championship is a huge morale booster?

Yes, for sure, it has been a morale booster. Also, it was the first tournament we played in a year after the lockdown restrictions were lifted. I felt that I was in great shape throughout the tournament and played some good rallies and games. It also helped me understand my weakness, and I have been working on the same with coach Gaurav Khanna at the national camp.

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Q: What are the realistic chances of winning a medal in Tokyo?

I have been training really hard with only one thing in my mind — winning the gold at the Paralympics. It would be special at many levels for me if that happens. I have been playing really well, and the recently concluded Dubai tournament has boosted my morale even more. I would also like to thank the Odisha Government and the Government of India for constantly supporting me through this journey.

Q: What are your future goals?

Right now, my focus is winning gold. I want to set a precedent for others to follow. I want to inspire people that if you give your best and focus on what you want to achieve, anything is possible. There are few plans that I am working on, which I will announce soon.

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