In sport, numbers alone rarely tell you the whole story. But there are some statistics that make you sit up and take notice. Like the number 47. That’s the number of medals India won at the Uganda Para Badminton International 2021 that concluded on 21 November in Kampala. The haul comprised 16 golds, 14 silvers and 17 bronze medals. Of the 18 categories staged at the tournament, India failed to make the podium in only two. In six of the categories, India completed a clean sweep by winning all the four medals on offer (both losing semi-finalists were given bronze).
This was a statement performance by India’s Para Badminton contingent that had scripted an impressive breakthrough at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. With the sport debuting in Paralympics in September this year, India won four medals, including two golds.
There is one man credited with India’s sudden rise in para badminton. Like Pullela Gopichand yanked Indian badminton into the 21st century and created a blueprint of success for the sport, Gaurav Khanna has heaved para badminton out of obscurity and into the limelight. Since he was appointed the head national coach of the Indian Para Badminton team 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 nationals in Bharuch, Gujarat in 1998, brought a premature end to his playing career. Rather than wallowing in disappointment, he qualified as a company commander in the Railway Police Force and did his commando training.
In 1999, Khanna was posted at the Hathras Railway Junction, which eventually began his journey back into sport. “Some hearing impaired kids used to live on the station,” narrates Khanna. “They didn’t have any family and stayed together. They were pickpocketing and were involved in some petty crimes. I thought these kids are small and it is their age of playing. I just bought some racquets, shuttles. I told them to stay away from pickpocketing.”
In the evenings, Khanna would play badminton with these kids outside the railway station. Soon, he learnt sign language and started communicating with people with a hearing impairment. Khanna completed a Bachelor of Physical Education degree from Lucknow University, earned a diploma in yoga and did a coaching course from NIS (National Institute of Sport), Bangalore. He also coached the Indian team to the Deaf Olympics twice.
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His first foray into formal coaching was when he was appointed the state coach of the Uttar Pradesh deaf team. Khanna’s knowledge and sensitivity set him apart and he emerged as one of India’s premier coaches for para athletes. He took over as the national coach of the Indian Para Badminton team in 2015. “When he came in, India was preparing for the World Championships,” says Pramod Bhagat, who won gold in Men's Singles SL3 (Standing/lower limb impairment) category in Tokyo. “He saw there were many problems with the sport in India. There were no camps, no facilities or help from the government. Earlier, we would participate in nationals. There used to be super series rankings tournaments in Odisha and Chennai. We would play government recognized tournaments like Asian Games, World Championships, Asian Championships. But never Open tournaments, like the ones in Malaysia, Denmark. Maybe it was lack of knowledge on our part, lack of communication. These small, but important things, he helped us with.”
While there were a few who were already playing the sport, Khanna had been the missing piece in the puzzle. Having worked in para sports in India for the past decade or so in various capacities, Khanna knew how to build a structure from scratch and glean whatever little help he could from the government and private sector. “When I became the head national coach, I realized that no one was training,” says Khanna. “The coach would just take the team abroad for tournaments, without any national camps. When I took over, I requested and arranged for a camp at SAI, Gandhinagar. This was before we went to the World Championship in UK. We had very good results there. The players demanded that they need consistent training. First thing I did, was I developed a common platform for athletes from all parts of the country and gave them access to come and train together in a professional set up.
“Unfortunately in India, even now there are no coaching modules according to the various disability classifications in badminton. We are training more coaches and trying to get players access to SAI (Sports Authority of India) centres so that we can draw talent from across the country.”
In the early days, during 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 courts at a nearby badminton facility. But the housing was not friendly for people with disabilities and the court timings could throw their training schedule off. “I have raised a personal loan of about ₹2 crore to build a facility for the para badminton players,” says Khanna, without wanting to delve into details of why the government did not build a dedicated national camp for para badminton athletes. The Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy came into being in December 2019 on the outskirts of Lucknow. “It has four courts for our national campers. Apart from that we have a pool, Jacuzzi, steam and sauna, ice bath, everything that a modern athlete needs,” he says.
Apart from building the set up and making customised training schedules for the 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 handpicked them for the national camp. Yathiraj is an IAS officer won a silver medal in SL4 (Standing/lesser impairment compared to Sport Class SL 3) class in Tokyo. Sarkar is a three-time world champion and Kohli was the youngest in the Indian badminton contingent at the Paralympics.
“The fact that people are writing news stories on an Indian coach means we have all exceeded their expectations,” says Bhagat, whose personal coach was SP Das. “Apart from the knowledge he brings to the table, he is always open to suggestion and takes inputs from players before making any decision. He’s made sure that we stay like one family.”
With Khanna close at hand and seniors gently guiding the younger players in the country, Indian Para badminton has risen like a tidal wave. Khanna contribution to the cause received a stamp of recognition from the government when he was conferred the Dronacharya Award in 2020. The 18-year-old Kohli, who won two gold medals and one silver at the tournament in Uganda, knew nothing about Para sport, let alone badminton, till a chance meeting with Khanna in 2016 outside a mall in Jalandhar. With the help of her parents she tracked down the person who had given her a dream, on social media and went to Lucknow for a trial.
“He was the first person who had told me I could play sports too,” says Kohli, who has an upper limb impairment. “It wasn’t easy for my family to send me away to a new city, but they had faith in me and my coach. I believe in the saying that, ‘A good coach can change the game, but great coach can change life.'”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.