I took up badminton by chance. Growing up, all children my age wanted to play cricket. It was what was around us — on TV screens at home and on advertisement hoardings. We would see other sports like athletics and football only when we switched to DD on the TV. Any discipline one can think of is at the tip of our fingers. Jo dikhta hai, wohi bikta hai (what one can see sells), and that perfectly encapsulates what has changed for the parasport ecosystem in India.
Para badminton was not a part of the Paralympic Games until the 2021 edition. I have been playing at the elite level since the late 2000s. It was a frustrating wait. I considered quitting the sport many times, and I even took a break for over a year. So, when we got to prove what we were made of on the biggest stage, we were determined to make the most of it. That was the drive behind the journey, which ultimately ended on the podium in Tokyo with a gold medal around my neck. We, as athletes, are not satisfied easily. I have my eyes fixed on a gold medal at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
With each passing year, more youngsters are taking to para sports to create better lives for themselves, and this is expected. There is a lot of talent yet to be tapped across the various disciplines within para sports. Thanks to the government and support from the federation, top para-athletes are now able to train around the world. Our facilities, though, especially inclusive ones for athletes with physical challenges, particularly at lower levels of competition, are yet to level up to the standards abroad. Making quality coaching and infrastructure available to the grassroots is a big gap that India must address at the earliest.
As para-athletes move from strength to strength in terms of medals won and laurels earned, a parallel focus needs to be on people with disabilities accessing sports as an audience. One aspect that can be taken up as a priority is making stadiums inclusive so that people from all walks of life and abilities can come and enjoy their favourite players and sports comfortably. Access to seating, restrooms, and parking are small things that go a long way in making the spectator experience seamless for a person with a disability.
I was felicitated for one of my earliest medals in a small public park in 2009. We’ve come a long way since; the gala welcome and grand honours we got after our best-ever medal haul at the Paralympics are evidence of that. The only way forward is up, and I am excited to see what heights we scale next.
As told to Lavanya Lakshmi Narayanan
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