Not all that glitters is gold. On April 16, Palak Kohli stood on the podium, beaming with the two bronze medals she won at the Brazil Para Badminton International 2023, one in singles SL4 (Standing/lower limb impairment/minor) and the other in women’s doubles SU5 (Standing/upper limb impairment)-SL3 (Standing/lower limb impairment/severe). Winning two medals, in two completely different classifications, at an international tournament is a feat in itself.
What made her achievement heftier is that it came less than a year after she had to undergo an emergency surgery to remove a bone tumour on her left ankle. “After the surgery, to step down from the bed was also not an easy task,” the 20-year-old tells Mint. “But I always wanted to come to court and give my best.”
Adversity is nothing new for the youngster. Born with a left arm that wasn’t fully developed, Kohli rose to fame as she became the youngest para badminton player in the world to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. However, since 2019, she has been dealing with issues in the left foot. Kohli suffered bone marrow edema four years ago and had undergone various treatments, including pool therapy, for it. But things took a turn for the worse in June 2022 when she was diagnosed with the tumour.
“I was very nervous, I was afraid to go for a surgery,” recalls Kohli. “Even my family was very shocked about how suddenly things happened that day. The doctors said it may lead to some consequences. But then if I didn’t opt for the surgery, the condition could have deteriorated. I was left with no option.” Kohli underwent surgery on the left ankle at the Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow.
Rather than going back home to Jalandhar, Kohli stuck around in Lucknow, safe in the cocoon she had created for herself through badminton. After all, the para badminton academy, run by Gaurav Khanna, who is now the national coach, was where she had taken her first steps as an athlete. In a previous interview with Mint, Kohli said she didn’t know about the sport till a chance meeting with the coach in 2016. Khanna was the first person who had believed that she could become an elite athlete. Kohli has spent the last seven years proving him right. Badminton became her world, the academy her family.
“I love staying here (Lucknow),” she said. “After the sessions, when I would be in bed, the athletes from the academy would come home. My mom used to make coffee for everybody and we used to play cards, enjoy, talk. They would get juice for me while coming, or coconut water. When they would travel for tournaments, they would always video call me.”
After the surgery, the youngster was prescribed bed rest for at least two months. Uncertainty clouded her future. But as soon as she could, Kohli returned to her home court. It was her happy place.
“On many occasions I scolded her and sent her away from the academy,” says Khanna. “But her parents told me that she’s shutting the door and crying in her room, they asked me to at least just let her be in the academy. She’s an athlete who has played at the highest level, it’s not easy to just accept.”
She started her journey back while confined to a wheelchair. She first worked on her upper body strength, then the core. Kohli would spend hours hitting shuttles against the wall, working on her backhand, new dribbles, adding variations to her serve — sharpening her hand skills and mind.
When Kohli finally got back on her feet, there was another surprise lying in wait. Due to the surgery, she had lost a lot of bone and muscle mass in her left foot. According to the coach, Kohli has fallen down on court while training on a few occasions due to the imbalance.
“The foot has shrunk,” she says. “Now I have to wear 3.5 size shoe on my left foot and six on the right. Previously both of them were six. We went for customised shoes and some customised ankle support that helps me so that my ankle doesn’t twist and I maintain my balance on court.
“Rehab and strengthening now play a very crucial role in my training. I have my rehab session every evening, strengthening session separately. We are looking to make the right leg stronger as it has to compensate for the workload of the left leg. I have to work on making the back stronger as well, as I have a slight limp while walking, which led to some problems in my back. Because of that, the posture has changed as well. It’s difficult, it’s tricky, but I can’t complain.”
Kohli would rather adapt.
“She has improved a lot over the past six months, but she’s still not the same as she was earlier,” Khanna adds. “There are a lot of new things she had to get used to. Her movements are not the same. But she’s become very sharp with her strokes. She would use a lot of trick services and smashes and unexpected strokes and not let the opponent get any rhythm.”
She unveiled this new, deceptive play in her first tournament back in Brazil. Kohli, who is accustomed to playing in the SU5 category, also put her name down for singles in the SL4 category. The rookie was immediately the disruptor. She defeated top seed and World No 3 Faustine Noel of France 21-14, 14-21, 22-20 in her second group match. In the quarterfinal, she defeated four-time Indian national champion Jyoti 21-18, 21-15.
Kohli entered the women’s double competition with a new partner, Vaishnavi Puneyani. And the Indian duo beat second seeds, Nipada Saensupa and Chanida Srinavakul of Thailand, 16-21, 21-17, 21-16 in the third round. Kohli-Puneyani went down to fellow Indians Manasi Joshi and Thulasimathi Murugesan in the semi-finals. Having started the tournament with six wins in a row, she finished it with two bronze medals, shimmering symbols of her spirit.
“I had my targets set,” says Kohli. “It’s a great start to the year for me, reaching two semi-finals in my first tournament back.”
Another challenge for Kohli, and Khanna, now is to manage her workload. The Asian Para Games are within sight and 2024 will bring big-ticket events like the World Championships and the Paris Paralympics. And while staying healthy will be Kohli’s priority, the athlete in her is already gearing up for the road ahead.
“She’s a fighter,” says coach Khanna. “In Brazil, she was on the lowest step of the podium; she’s not going to stop till she’s on the top.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai
Also read: How an Indian para badminton player trained to become the best in the world