How a shoe transformed para-badminton star Nilesh Gaikwad's life
Struggling to find the right pair of shoes to pursue his sporting dreams, World No. 7 para-badminton shuttler Nilesh Gaikwad opened up on how Nivia has made his quest successful.
Fresh off a bronze medal win from the Spanish Para-Badminton International Level 1 tournament, ace para-shuttler Nilesh Gaikwad's journey towards securing glory in badminton, has been one filled with countless obstacles.
Having had to play barefoot entirely during his younger years because no one could find the right pair to assist him in the pursuit of his sporting dreams, Gaikwad has come a long way in the search of the right shoes - till he has now finally found the one, leading to his badminton-playing experience completely transforming for the better.
The World No. 7 SL4 para-badminton athlete who comes from a drought-stricken area of Maharashtra has had to cross many a hurdle to reach where he is today. Willed by his mother who refused to give up and pose his lower limb disability as a problem, Nilesh's sheer willpower and a deep passion for sports have helped him to dream big again.
"I was always attracted to sports, I loved playing. My mother pushed me to play with the kids in our village - so I would take part in everything, from kho kho to cricket to kabaddi and other village sports," Gaikwad recalled and told The Bridge in an exclusive interaction.
Badminton, however, was to happen much later for Gaikwad, who would keep a tab on Indian badminton's first poster queen Saina Nehwal and her exploits on the court. It was only when Gaikwad joined the Government Polytechnic College that he came to know more about para-sports and came across para-badminton as well and was drawn towards it immediately.
"As badminton is basically a metro city sport, I didn't know too much about badminton at first," Gaikwad mentioned. "But I'm a big sports fan and used to watch every sport on television and reading the sports news was also my hobby. I was a fan of Saina Nehwal and would always follow her news about world ranking and winning titles by breaking the Chinese wall," Gaikwad relayed, the excitement pretty evident in the 25-year-old shuttler's voice.
Lacking strength in his legs and having difficulty walking since birth, Nilesh Gaikwad couldn't even find the right pair of shoes and would play barefoot, spurred on by his love for the game.
"I was good at running and wanted to do athletics but I found out that the Paralympics require you to wear a shoe to compete, hence I couldn't continue because whenever I wore shoes, it made me very slow and restricted my movement," he said.
In sports, especially in the competitive space that it is today, shoes play a very key role in any athlete's life - no matter if they are able-bodied or para-athletes. Wearing the wrong shoes and not finding the right fit can often lead to injuries in players and harm their mobility on the court.
For Nilesh, this was the struggle from the start and for the longest time, the ace para-shuttler found his movement to be slow because the wrong pair of shoes would either reduce his pace and wearing no shoes while competing nationally and internationally was a strict no-no.
Conquering challenges, one step at a time
Parting ways with his athletics dreams because he became a slow runner when forced into shoes, Nilesh soon fell in love with badminton and would even play that barefoot till 2016. The wearing of shoes would greatly hamper his mobility and he couldn't be quick enough on the court which created advantages for his opponents.
Badminton is one the fastest racquet sports in the world and a lot depends on the ability to move quickly and smartly on the court, which is a problem Gaikwad struggled with because he couldn't find the right fit.
"Till 2016 I was playing badminton without shoes but then during a SAI camp, my coaches told me that I must wear non-marking shoes to compete. So I started playing with shoes but it made my movements very slow," Nilesh recalled.
"This is because of my leg shape, half the shoe remains extra and also the heel has no balance then, so wearing shoes was a burden for me," he said.
"I started using small shoes for my one leg but it didn't help much so I kept wearing different shoes. Because my heel was not balanced wearing these regular shoes, I would always get injuries. I tried many options but there was no solution," Nilesh explained about his ordeals.
However, the quest for finding the right shoe was always ongoing and even his coach, Gaurav Khanna was involved in trying to find a solution before fellow para-shuttler Palak Kohli's father came to the rescue with Nivia Sports.
"Last year when Kohli Uncle came to Lucknow (Palak's father), Gaurav Sir told him about my problem and he said he'd look for it in Jalandhar where there are a lot of shoe factories," Gaikwad explained.
"As it turned out, the Managing Director of Nivia, Mr Rajesh Kharbanda and Kohli Uncle knew each other since they were from the same school and before long, I visited the Nivia factory in Jalandhar and told them of my leg problem and gave my measurements and miraculously, after a few days, I got Got my shoes," Gaikwad remembered.
"It was a very challenging task because of my leg shape and there was no example available. It took 3 experiments to get the most suitable pair," Gaikwad mentioned. " I'm thankful to Nivia that without any hesitation they kept trying and finally I got comfortable shoes," attributing his recent bronze medal win to be a possibility simply because of the shoes.
"Wearing these modified shoes increased my speed and side and back movements in a big margin than previous shoes which I was using," Gaikwad assessed.
"Till now Nivia has given me 5 pairs of shoes and didn't even charge any money from me! It's wonderful to see just how much Nivia is willing to come forward to support para-athletes in their shoe problems," Gaikwad gratefully acknowledged.
A packed year now lies ahead for Gaikwad with the main focus remaining on getting entry into the Asian Para Games and the World Championships while maintaining and improving their ranking. With Indian para-badminton stars shining consistently, helmed by coach Gaurav Khanna, the future is only brighter and Nilesh is most excited for it.
"Ultimately, my biggest dream is to win a medal at the Paris Paralympics in 2024," Gaikwad stressed, before signing off.