In sports, numbers rarely tell you the whole story. But there are some statistics that make you sit down and pay attention. Like number 47. That is the number of medals India won at Uganda Para Badminton International 2021 which ended on November 21 in Kampala. The catch consisted of 16 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze medals. Of the 18 categories held in the tournament, India failed to qualify for the podium in just two. In six categories, India completed a clean slate by winning all four medals offered (both lost semifinalists won bronze).
This was the performance of an Indian pair of badminton contingents who wrote an impressive breakthrough at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. With the debut of the sport at the Paralympic Games in September this year, India won four medals, including two golds.
There is one man who is credited with India’s sudden rise in steam badminton. Just as Pullela Gopicand pulled Indian badminton into the 21st century and created a blueprint for success for the sport, Gaurav Khanna pulled the pair of badminton out of the darkness into the spotlight. Since he was appointed the main coach of the Indian pair of badminton teams in 2015, the country has won a total of 386 medals.
Khanna, 45, was a badminton player himself. But a knee injury during the U-22 national team in Bharuch, Gujarat in 1998, brought an early end to his playing career. Instead of being disappointed, he qualified as a company commander in the railway police and underwent commando training.
In 1999, Khanna was placed at the Hathras railway hub, which eventually began his return to the sport. “Some hearing-impaired children lived at the station,” says Khanna. “They had no family and stayed together. They pocketed and were involved in some petty crimes. I thought these kids were small and that it was their game time. I just bought some rackets, shuttles. I told them to stay away from pickpockets. “
Khanna would play badminton in front of the train station with these children in the evening. He soon learned sign language and began communicating with people with hearing impairments. Khanna completed a degree in physical education from Lucknow University, earned a degree in yoga and attended a coaching course at NIS (National Institute of Sports), Bangalore. He also coached the Indian team twice at the Deaf Olympics.
His first foray into formal coaching was when he was appointed national coach of the deaf team Uttar Pradesh. Khanna’s knowledge and sensitivity set him apart and he emerged as one of India’s leading coaches of a pair of athletes. He took over as national coach of the Indian pair of badminton team in 2015. “When he came, India was preparing for the World Cup,” says Pramod Bhagat, who won gold in the men’s individual SL3 category (standing / lower limb damage) in Tokyo. “He saw that there were a lot of problems with sports in India. There were no camps, facilities or government assistance. We would have participated in the national ones earlier. There used to be super series rankings tournaments in Odisha and Chennai. We would play in state-recognized tournaments like the Asian Games, the World Cup, the Asian Championship. But never Open tournaments, like the ones in Malaysia, Denmark. Maybe it was a lack of knowledge on our part, a lack of communication. He helped us in these small but important things. ”
Although there were a few who were already involved in the sport, Khanna was the missing piece in the puzzle. Having worked in parasport in India for the last ten years in various positions, Khanna knew how to build a structure from scratch and get as little help as he could from the government and the private sector. “When I became the head coach, I realized no one was training,” Khanna says. “The coach would just take the team abroad to tournaments, without national camps. When I took office, I requested and arranged a camp at SAI, Gandhinagar. That was before we went to the UK World Cup. We had very good results there. The players demanded that they need consistent training. The first thing I did was to develop a common platform for athletes from all parts of the country and give them access to come and train together in a professional lineup.
“Unfortunately in India, even now there are no modules for training according to different classifications of badminton disabilities. We are training more coaches and trying to give players access to SAI (Indian Sports Authorities) centers so that we can attract talent from all over the country. ”
In the early days, during the national camps in Lucknow, the Indian team would be housed in rented apartments and had to work out their schedules according to the availability of the terrain at a nearby badminton facility. But the accommodation was not friendly for people with disabilities, and court appointments could throw out their training schedule. “I took out a personal loan of about ₹2 million to build a facility for paramount badminton players, ”says Khanna, not wanting to go into details as to why the government did not build a dedicated national camp for paramount badminton players. The Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy was established in December 2019 on the outskirts of Lucknow. “There are four pitches for our national campers. In addition, we have a swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam and sauna, ice bath, everything a modern athlete needs, ”he says.
In addition to building a lineup and making custom training schedules for 60 players under his supervision, Khanna is always on the lookout for talent. He spotted players like Suhas Yathiraj, Palak Kohli and Manoj Sarkar, and manually selected them for the national camp. Yathiraj is an IAS officer, winning a silver medal in the SL4 class (Standard / minor damage compared to the Sport Class SL 3) in Tokyo. Sarkar is a three-time world champion, and Kohli was the youngest in the Indian badminton contingent at the Paralympic Games.
“The fact that people are writing news about the Indian coach means we have all exceeded their expectations,” says Bhagat, whose personal trainer was SP Das. “Apart from the knowledge he brings to the table, he is always open to suggestions and takes suggestions from the player before making any decision. He made sure we stayed as one family. ”
With Khann at his fingertips and the seniors gently leading the younger players in the country, the Indian pair of badminton rose like a tidal wave. Khanne’s contribution to this goal received a seal of recognition from the government when he was awarded the Dronachary Prize in 2020. The 18-year-old Kohli, who won two gold medals and one silver at a tournament in Uganda, knew nothing about para sports, let alone badminton, until a chance encounter with Khanna in 2016 in front of a shopping mall in Jalandhar. With the help of her parents, she found the person who gave her a dream on social media and went to Lucknow for trial.
“He was the first person to tell me that I could do sports too,” says Kohli, who has upper limb damage. “It was not easy for my family to send me to a new city, but they believed in me and my coach. I believe the saying, ‘A good coach can change the game, but a great coach can change lives.’
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in Mumbai.