One of the worst hit industries by the Coronavirus pandemic is sports.
Events were postponed or cancelled, and India’s Lucknow Para Badminton Academy closed its doors, sending most of its resident athletes home.
Palak Kohli decided to forgo the comforts of home to continue preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
At 17, Kohli is the youngest member of the Indian Para badminton team and is ranked fifth in the world in women’s doubles Standing (SL3/SU5) category with partner Parul Dalsukhbai Parmar.
“At the time, they had not postponed the Paralympics. Thinking I only had a few months to prepare, I decided to stay in Lucknow instead of going to my family in Jalandhar, Punjab. When the academy closed, I moved into a guest house. With help from coach Gaurav Khanna, we set up outdoor badminton courts in the garden nearby,” said Kohli.
In addition to setting up two outdoor training courts with lighting to facilitate night sessions, Khanna also helped put together basic weight training equipment.
So why does one girl need two courts?
“They are in two separate locations but within walking distance from where I’m staying. Because of the extreme temperature changes, we use different courts at different times.”
Kohli’s first session starts at 6am, and lasts two and a half hours. She takes a break when its hottest and is back for a repeat session at 6pm. She and Khanna maintain the recommended social distancing rules and use sanitisers during warm-up, weight training and practice. The courts are also within a compound not accessible to the public.
“My daily routine has not changed much. Coach lives nearby and is here for every session. I decided I needed to make the best of these difficult times and the lockdown has not affected me physically or mentally. Playing outdoors in the mud and grass, having fresh air and sunlight has made me mentally strong.”
Kohli’s international badminton journey began in April 2019 at the Fazza-Dubai Para Badminton International, when she and Parmar were then ranked 42nd in the world.
“People kept saying it would be hard to qualify for the World Championships. They told me I was still young and should focus on the 2024 and 2028 Paralympics. I felt demotivated but my coach told me to trust my abilities and him.”
By the end of 2019, Kohli and Parmar had risen to fifth. Although their gold at the Uganda Para Badminton International was encouraging, it was followed by several disappointments until they won bronze in Japan in November. Then in Peru in February, it was silver.
“In a year, we qualified for the World Championships and the Paralympics. I proved myself and this gave me a lot of confidence. Parmar is a great support. She has taught me how not to lose hope on court even when falling behind.”
Quite the achievement for someone who first heard about Para badminton four years ago.
“I was in a mall with my mother. A man came up to her and asked if we knew about Para badminton. He told her to consider letting me take up the sport. He gave us his contact number and we went our separate ways.”
This encounter piqued her curiosity. Although she hails from a family with no sports background, Kohli has always been athletic but was never encouraged to participate in competitive sports.
“Every time I wanted to take part in school, my teachers would say it’s dangerous and I could get hurt. Other people said I should focus on getting good grades because there are special seats reserved in university for people with disabilities.”
Determined to prove the naysayers wrong, with her family’s help Kohli sought out several badminton training centres but none seemed the right fit. After tracking down the man from the mall, who turned out to be Khanna, she enrolled in the Lucknow academy and has not looked back.
As things stand, Kohli and Parmar’s position almost definitely ensures them a spot in Tokyo next year.
“My family has sacrificed so much for me. I’m lucky the people in my life don’t let me give up. Although these are uncertain times, I plan to convert these disadvantages into an advantage.”
Kohli’s resolve does not leave much time for anything other than badminton. Earlier this year, she deferred her 12th Grade high school board exams to play in Brazil and Peru, to secure her spot in Tokyo.
The postponement of the Paralympics to next year means being away from home and school for an even longer period.
“My coach refused to let me feel down. This outdoor training plan helps me keep up with my badminton.”
And she’s staying on track with plans for her academic future.
“I want to study mass communication and change the negative mindset that people with disabilities can’t play sports. I have signed up to take my board exams in October. My days are all about training and studying.”
However, she has no regrets making sacrifices most teenagers would gripe about.
“I use social media to keep in touch with friends. I like music, dancing and parties but there’s no time for that. I haven’t seen my family for so long. Our video calls help me relax but I really miss them and the food back home. Still, if I had gone home, I’d be stuck indoors, get lazy, put on weight and become demotivated.
“Instead, I’m here playing badminton which has now become my hobby, passion and profession.”