India's Pramod Bhagat uses downtime to strengthen his weaknesses & attain better fitness

Nightmare for many, but the Covid-19 Pandemic has turned out to be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for India’s Para Badminton star Pramod Bhagat.

Bhagat, a World no. 1 and the reigning World Champion in SL3 singles and doubles category, has been confined to his home in Bhubaneswar, an ancient city in India’s eastern state of Odisha, for more than four months now. But he has no complaints. Instead he has used the downtime to attain better fitness and mental strength and is now raring to go all out for his dream of a Paralympic medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

"I have made the most of this lockdown time to work on my fitness and strengthen my weaknesses. During our usual training time, we distribute our time on our skills, technique, tactics and fitness. Now that our training has been halted, I had ample of time to focus on my fitness and mental well-being.

"And I am more than satisfied with the outcome of these four months of work out at home— I have never felt so good about my body; am fitter than ever before and, have gained strength in my left (disabled) leg and strengthened my core. I am able to move the leg more comfortably, which is a great satisfaction. Mentally I feel very confident about my movements now," said the Arjuna Awardee Bhagat, who is at the top of the Tokyo 2020 qualifying list in men’s singles SL3 category.

"The COVID-19 is a big challenge for the world now. For me, however, this lost time has helped me work on my biggest challenge – the movement in my disabled leg," said the left-handed shuttler who was affected by polio in his left leg in his childhood.

Depressed with Tokyo 2020 postponement

The 32-year-old, country’s brightest prospect of winning a gold at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, said the postponement of the Games had brought ‘disappointment’. And it took some time for him to regroup and start his fitness training again.

"Initially I was a bit depressed with the way things were turning out. I have waited and trained all these years to play at the Paralympic Games. First, we had hopes at Rio 2016 and then now when Para Badminton was making its debut in Tokyo, it was postponed. It was frustrating. But then, training and staying positive was the minimum I could do to keep myself going.

"Also, I kept saying myself that I have to stay fit be ready for the Games, even though I have to wait another five years.

"The postponement of the Games has definitely taken our mind and body back to relaxed mode. Thus, it will be important staying active and maintaining the fitness level," said the five-time World Champion who has now started court training after four months gap at the Railway Indoor Stadium in Bhubaneswar.

Talking about his main competitor for the Tokyo 2020 Games, Bhagat said England’s Daniel Bethell has always been his toughest opponent. "At Tokyo 2020, he will have the psychological advantage having won in the test event in Tokyo. I have to be prepared to tackle him this time."

However at the 2019 World Para Badminton Championships, Bhagat came back from a game down to defeat Bethell and clinch his third title in the men’s singles SL3 category. He also had a "great start" to 2020 with two gold medals each at Brazil and Peru International events.

Unique Partnership

Not just in singles, Bhagat has been a two-time world champion in men’s doubles SL3 event as well. And he says his "unique partnership and bonding" with Manoj Sarkar since 2013 is the key to their success. "I am quite relaxed and controlled in the matches, while Manoj is opposite to me; he is very aggressive and uncontrolled. Thus, we balance each other and make a great pair together. I just need to calm him down in crucial situations and he takes control of the match."

The Odisha-born Para Badminton star, who has taken part in four Asian Para Games, went on to add that the 2013 World Championships gold in men’s doubles SL3 stands out as his favourite in his 15 year career span. "It remains close to my heart as I and Manoj played the finals relying on my decisions and tactics. This gave me immense confidence and self- belief once we knocked down the final points."

However for him, the 2014 Incheon Asian Para Games bronze medal was the turning point in his career and recognition and financial help started coming in thereafter.

Asked to choose between singles and doubles, Bhagat said "playing is more important"

"But given a choice, I like to play doubles more than singles as I am able to enjoy the game. In fact, I prefer playing mixed doubles than men’s doubles. Hopefully soon; and if I get a chance, I would like to partner with promising player Palak Kohli for the mixed doubles," said Bhagat who is supported by KIIT University in Bhubaneswar and Olympic Gold Quest.

He also never forgets to acknowledge the support of his mentor and coach SP Das and Gaurav Khanna, who he says have "shaped his career". "I would have been nothing without them."

Psychological advantage

Having taken up the role of a Badminton coach in schools in recent years, Bhagat said it gives him a psychological advantage in his matches. "I can read my opponents’ game better. Maybe I am able to utilize all these years of my coaching experience and skills during my matches. And that is the reason, I am able to win matches from a critical situation.

"Though I am not taking up coaching roles currently, but I enjoy it and hopefully after I retire as a player, this will be the one thing I would look to pursue to give back to the sport."

For now, his dream is to win a Paralympic medal and meet his idol and cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, whom he describes as a "humble human being and true sportsman".

"A Paralympic medal will fulfil two of my dreams at a time. Tendulkar ji is my idol and he met the Olympic and Paralympic medallists of Rio 2016, even congratulated them. I hope I can meet him next year after the Tokyo 2020 Games with a Paralympic medal around my neck.

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