As badminton makes a debut at the Paralympics in Tokyo, a seven-member team from India is set to make it big and return with a haul of medals. The team consists of experienced players like Arjuna awardee Pramod Bhagat and budding stars like 19-year-old Palak Kohli.
Behind this strong team is a former badminton player named Gaurav Khanna, their coach who, for the last 15 years, has selflessly dedicated his life to training athletes with disabilities and hearing impairments.
The Learning Curve
Gaurav, 46, a resident of Lucknow, started playing badminton at a young age and won many state and national competitions. In 1998, his achievements helped him start his career as an inspector at the Railway Protection Force (RPF).
However, during a doubles match at the Udaipur Nationals, he injured his knee and was forced to give up playing to avoid further damage. Though that was his last match as a player, he did not want to give up on the sport altogether.
His mother, who comes from humble beginnings, had dedicated most of her life to helping the needy and persons with disabilities (PwDs) in their hometown. Being a religious person, she would visit the temple every day and provide food or essentials to the needy. Sometimes, she would help them cross the road or walk in and out of the temple.
Following her footsteps, Gaurav decided to do the same, and help others. In an interview with Sportsmatik, he said, “During my training days, I practised along with hearing-impaired players as well as those with disabilities. However, their participation would be minimal since training happened quickly, and it would be hard for them to keep up. So, I decided to support them.”
At first, he identified a few hearing-impaired players from his previous circles and began training them. Since he was giving them special attention, the students would pick up the game faster and deliver good results. Gaurav even learnt sign language to ensure he could communicate with his students with ease.
From here, there was no stopping him. He continued identifying players from various rehabilitation centres and supporting them in their journey.
But being a coach for para players is not an easy task. Apart from learning sign language, Gaurav also took a special approach while teaching any stroke. He said in an interview that it is not the same as teaching able-bodied players. He has to take into consideration their physical conditions, manage movement for those on wheelchairs, and be very patient as they learn.
Though it is a difficult task, his zeal to provide training, and the student’s enthusiasm to learn, keeps him going. Apart from providing training, Gaurav also ensures that the promising players receive sponsorship from government and private organisations.
Along with starting a non-profit coaching academy, in 2000, he was also made the national coach for the Indian deaf team. His students participated in Deaf World Championships, and the following year, he was appointed as the coach for the Asian team in the Asia Europe Continental Deaf Championship.
Some of his students include World Champions like Manoj Sarkar, Pramod Bhagat, Parul Parmar, IAS officer Suhas LY, among others. In 2015, Gaurav was made the head coach for the Indian Para team for the world championships. That year, India won 13 medals.
In an interview with Times of India, he said “Usually for national-level para competitions there would be only 40-50 entries. But by 2017, there were 150 entries, and by 2019 there were over 300 entries.” This growth in numbers was because the sport had become popular among Indian para athletes.
In August 2020, Gaurav was awarded the Dronacharya Award for his contribution to para-badminton. The same year he also started a badminton academy named Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy, a dedicated space for para badminton players.
As the Paralympics are being conducted in Tokyo, a seven-member team consisting of Gaurav’s students — Parul Parmar, Palak Kohli, Manoj Sarkar, Pramod Bhagat, Tarun Dhillon, Suhas L Yathiraj and Krishna Nagar, will represent India.
Edited by Yoshita Rao