My introduction to Para-badminton was a very big coincidence. Sometime in the year 2016 my mother, brother and I were coming out of a mall when a stranger just straightforwardly asked, "What has happened to your hand?" We were pretty normalised to people asking such questions by then and so we instantly explained how I was born with it. The man asked just one question in response, "Do you know Para-sports?"
Now, from where I come from we were well-aware of sports and how people who represent India in various sports are well-known figures and are very well-respected. But, we did not have any idea about the existence of Para-sports. I was just really intrigued by hearing about something like Para-sports and just happy when he suggested I try my hand specifically at para-badminton, because no one really had encouraged me to play sports up until that point. But, that short five-minute interaction was all we had and we soon moved on with our lives. I had no idea who the stranger was, but what he said stuck to my head.
Cut to a couple of months later, my school was selecting their team for an inter-school sports event. I went along with my classmates and was standing in a queue for the trails when one of my teachers, even before the trials had happened, called me aside and rebuked my idea of appearing for the trials. Her reasoning was simple, I might end up injuring myself more if I play and so should just focus on studies which would in turn help me get a good job through the 'quotas for disabled' in the country. This was very disappointing for me. On one hand, I had a complete stranger asking me to try out something called Para-sports, while on the other a teacher from my school was forcing me not to play any sports!
Although I was very disappointed, something spurred me on and this was the moment I made up my mind to reconnect with that stranger and pursue Para-badminton. As soon as I reached home that day, I told my parents I wanted to play. They were surprised at first, but they somehow helped me reconnect with that stranger for my happiness.
Later I realised that the stranger was none other than Gaurav Khanna – our National Para-Badminton Coach, who was in my home city of Jhalandar for some tournament of Northern Railways. My father had a chat with him and we came down to Lucknow the very next weekend to kick-start my career in the sport.
Coming from a middle-class business background, my family has always supported me. I was 15-years-old when I started playing badminton later in 2017. We started slowly, but Gaurav sir had his whole plan laid out for me. It was very tough for me to start up with the sport – even holding the racquet properly was a challenge, and then I had to leave school as well…
But, I kept training every single day and improved slowly and steadily. I was pretty excited to play in my first National tournament immediately in 2018 because I just wanted to get my hands on a certificate and wanted to return back to my school and show it off. But, sir did not allow me to. He probably had something better planned. In fact, I did not play a single tournament in 2018; I played my first National tournament in 2019 wherein I won three titles – Junior, Senior Singles, and Doubles in Senior Women.
There has been no looking back since. I started competing internationally just months after that and our sole aim was to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics. It was a big ambition, mainly due to the fact that I had no sponsors. So our planning had to be meticulous. I played in select events only in Asia as travelling to European events was expensive and performed well in my first year of international debut, even qualifying for World Championships.
I started facing some sort of pain in my leg when I was playing a tournament in Thailand after the World Championship. It took some time to diagnose, but when it was diagnosed the doctors said I had a bone marrow edema. After I was diagnosed I was bed-ridden for close to three months. The Paralympics qualification was at a crucial juncture when I was diagnosed with this. I had to play as many tournaments as possible to stay in contention. So, although I was in pain, I played in a tournament in Japan with severe pain and even won a bronze medal there. After the tournament in Japan, I got a long period of rest as there were not many tournaments happening.
I am still not 100% fit. Yes, I have resumed playing but there are bad days when the pain is unbearable. I am still learning on how to maintain it. It is getting better and I am hoping to be fully fit by the time the Paralympics begins in Tokyo.
Being recognised as the youngest Para-badminton player to qualify for the Paralympics is in itself a big achievement for me. It is undoubtedly a very great opportunity, so it is easy to be under pressure. But, I do not have anything to lose. I have to put in my efforts, work hard, and hopefully, it would translate into a podium finish in Tokyo. I defeated quite a few good players recently in Dubai and I am confident of making India proud in Tokyo.
All I have tried to do in life until now is create a benchmark. A benchmark for upcoming generations to follow, and whatever I have achieved is just a result of that mindset. Sympathising with someone just because they have some disability is not cool; instead, provide them with an opportunity and who knows they might do wonders.