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This former skating champ is lending a hand to keep the community on wheels

Sapna Pankaj Desai says she’s proud to be a coach and give back to the sport by helping the skating community flourish

Former national-level skater Sapna Pankaj Desai now trains younger aspirants.
Former national-level skater Sapna Pankaj Desai now trains younger aspirants.

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Balancing two things is not taxing if you like what you’re doing; it becomes rejuvenating, even,” says Sapna Pankaj Desai, corporate director of global sales for Gujarat region at The Indian Hotels Co. Ltd (IHCL). Desai, 50, is a champion skater, who now uses her experience and skills to coach the national skating team of India, all the while being a full-time employee at IHCL, where she has worked since 1989.

Desai took up skating in 1979, when she was ten-years-old. “There was a skating rink across from my house in Ahmedabad. My parents also encouraged me to take up a sport, that’s how it started,” says Desai, who lives in Ahmedabad.

Her last competitive tournament was the National Skating Tournament in 1988, when she was 19-years-old. She has been awarded the Sardar Patel Award for Skating in the Gujarat region.

“I’ve been with IHCL, since 1989, I will complete 30 years this July,” she says proudly. Work has been a huge part of her life, and she says its the colleagues and work atmosphere that give her the strength to manage her coaching venture as well. For her, work and hobby have always gone hand in hand.

Desai began coaching in 1989, just before she started work in IHCL in July that year. “I don’t skate regularly anymore, just about once in two weeks. In my time, the upper limit for skating competitively was 25 years, so I took up coaching,” she says. “I had competed and finished all these levels and wanted to share my experience, so I decided to coach,” she says. Desai teaches three days a week and dedicates close to two hours to each class.

She cherishes her close relationship with her students, who participate in tournaments and workshops around the world. Often the students, Desai says, insist that she accompany them in competitions, as they crave the support her presence provides. But having a full-time job means, she isn’t always able to travel with them.

That’s where social media has helped, which forms a bridge during these tournaments. Whenever she cannot accompany her team to a tournament or seminar, she encourages them to call her whenever they need help or a motivational speech.

“There have been students who called at odd hours from different parts of the world and asked questions. They’re in a different time zone where it’s probably the afternoon for them, and after I’ve answered, they realize my voice doesn’t sound normal, and I have to tell them that it is 3.30am and I was sleeping,” she says with a laugh.

The biggest lesson balancing work and hobby has taught her is time management. “This kind of schedule does call for some compromise on the family and friends front,” she says. She makes sure not to avoid missing coaching sessions, and there are times, especially before tournaments when she has absolutely no time for her family.

Desai says her priorities remain dynamic: Sometimes, important work events compel her to sit out tournaments, at others, she accompanies her students for trips and skating meets by taking time off from work.

Her students’ dedication to winning is something Desai prides herself on. “During a tournament, one of my students had a close fight for the medal with a member of the Japanese team. Last minute, my student learned a move he saw the Japanese skater do, and won the gold,” she says.

Desai believes that she has never felt a lack of support from her peers at her workplace. Desai has also managed to chart out a schedule for weekdays and weekends so that she dedicates an appropriate amount of time for work, family, coaching and every other activity she pursues.

“I conduct early morning sessions for students, go to work, and return to the rink in the evening to work with the students for another hour or two,” she says.

Despite her tight schedule, Desai never feels the need to take a break from her work or her coaching venture. The one thing she repeats to her students is: “Never compromise on something you like to do for something you think you should do.”

Though she herself does not participate in competitions anymore, she feels proud knowing that she is giving back to the sport by helping the skating community flourish.

Workplace Champions looks at how employees who excel at sports, and perform competitively, also manage their day jobs.

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