Lucknow’s Gaurav Khanna was like any other athlete when he sustained injuries during a match and later an accident, leaving him disabled. Instead of giving up sports, he turned to training para athletes.
For 20-year-old Palak Kohli, a career in sports was a distant dream. Born with an underdeveloped left arm, all she could do at sports courts was sit in a corner and watch others play.
As a teenage girl with a disability, she would often feel agitated by society’s perception of her. Teachers, peers and those around her would advise her to focus on her studies and get a job through disability quotas. Often, she would burst into tears of helplessness, she recalls.
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In 2017, Palak met a stranger outside a mall in her hometown, Jalandhar, Punjab. After introducing himself and asking her about her disability, the stranger informed her about para badminton. “I was someone who was always stopped from playing sports, and this stranger comes out of nowhere and tells me I can do wonders in sports! I found it hard to believe,” Palak tells The Better India.
But the idea instilled hope in her, and in 2018, she started practising para badminton under the stranger, who she soon came to know was none other than Gaurav Khanna, head national coach of India’s para badminton team.
Badminton debuted at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020. A seven-member team, including Palak and Arjuna awardee Pramod Bhagat, participated in the game held in 2021. This made Palak the youngest athlete to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics at the age of 19. She also became the first Indian woman athlete to compete in the semifinals in Tokyo and finished with the 4th position.
Badminton came into Palak’s life as a blessing. “My own definition of disability has changed. People who once discouraged me appreciate me now. I don’t want girls with disabilities to be termed as bechari (helpless),” she says.
From athlete to national para badminton coach
Palak’s success, along with that of 30 other para athletes in Lucknow, is the result of Gaurav’s years-long endeavour. He has trained all of them free of cost.
Gaurav tells The Better India, “I am proud of my students — Palak, Mandeep Kaur, Nitya and Manasi Joshi. Nehal Gupta is just 17 but has started defeating other players. We have won 600 medals in the Paralympics, of which 200 are gold. India has not received so many medals in any other sport in senior competitions.”
A former badminton player, Gaurav himself has a disability of 60 percent and has dedicated his life to training athletes with disabilities and hearing impairments. He has been training para athletes for nearly 15 years.
A resident of Lucknow, the 46-year-old started playing badminton at a young age and went on to win state and national-level competitions. But during a doubles match at the Udaipur Nationals in the year 1998, he sustained meniscus tears in one leg and was forced to quit playing.
Left with no choice, he started looking for a job and soon started his career at the Railway Protection Force in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
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An academy for para badminton players
It was during this phase that Gaurav observed how hearing-impaired children, often orphaned or abandoned by their parents, would turn to pickpocketing. Even educated people would term them “anti social elements”, he says.
“These were innocent children. I gave them rackets, and we started playing badminton in the evenings. We later set up an outdoor court. Sometimes I would take them to Aligarh to play badminton. The purpose was to make them feel they can do something with their lives,” says Gaurav.
He started identifying more such students and also learnt sign language to ensure he could communicate with them with ease.
Meanwhile, in 2000, he suffered another injury — this time in his other leg — in a road accident. But Gaurav was determined not to give up on the sport.
The same year, he was made the national coach for the Indian Deaf Badminton team and his students went on to participate in the Deaf World Championships. And in 2015, Gaurav was made the head coach for the Indian Para team for the world championships.
“As national head coach of para badminton, I saw there was no organised structure for the athletes. We have talented players but they did not have a dedicated space for training,” recalls Gaurav.
“We started training in Lucknow. But we were treated like second-class citizens. All the players had to cook on their own. Our court was damaged and when it rained, we could not play. We would be allowed to play only after the other players were done. The washrooms, courts and rooms were not disabled-friendly. We also wanted to be a priority,” he adds.
Determined to make a difference, Gaurav took a loan and set up a dedicated space for para badminton players in Lucknow. Named Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy, the centre is equipped with synthetic and wooden courts, a modern gym, professional coaches, physiotherapists and nutritionists.
In 2020, Gaurav was awarded the Dronacharya Award for his contributions to para badminton.
Today, more than 30 para athletes from across Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Delhi are provided training in Gaurav’s academy.
But he feels he still has a long way to go. Gaurav says, “We are preparing for the 2028, 2032 and 2036 Olympics for which I am planning to increase the number of courts in the academy and set up a gurukul system where children with disabilities can play as well as study.”
Edited by Asha Prakash. All images: By arrangement.