Inside the badminton academy where paralympians are made

Located in a quiet residential area on the outskirts of Lucknow, Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy (GKEBA) is buzzing with activity. Step inside and it looks like any other top-notch sports academy – state-of-the-art equipment, check; check kids playing badminton; and trainers on their toes, check. Only on closer inspection does one recognize that it is an academy for people with disabilities. Loss is more than just a feeling here; it is physical and visible, in the limbs and in the stature. But something instinctively abounds – the courage and spirit of the players.

You have to be vigilant when working with these athletes. You need to make sure that instead of making their problems worse, you strengthen and heal their weak muscles. – Gaurav Khanna, national para badminton coach

Come here [and playing] Badminton gave me an identity. – Palak Kohli, Paralympian

Gkeba has four courts – two with FIFA-approved synthetic mats for standing athletes and two wooden courts for wheelchair athletes. It also has a state-of-the-art gym, sauna and hydrotherapy hot tub.

Located on the first floor of Excellia School, GKEBA is the brainchild of Gaurav Khanna, a Dronacharya Awardee and National Para Badminton Coach. He has just returned from Delhi and as he walks in the ‘bat’ falls silent and the players line up beside him. The players are getting ready for the Brazil Para Badminton International, which will be held in Sao Paulo from April 19th to 24th. Khanna is asking for updates – not only on player preparation but also on their health. The academy also has a physiotherapist, a sports psychologist and a nutritionist. “You have to be vigilant when working with these athletes,” says Khanna. “You have to make sure that instead of making their problems worse, you strengthen and heal their weak muscles.”

GKEBA was officially launched on January 18, 2022 following the overwhelming success of para-badminton players at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021. The players returned with two gold medals, one silver medal, one bronze medal and zero anonymity – India had woken up against Paralympians Pramod Bhagat (gold), Krishna Nagar (gold), Suhas Yathiraj (silver) and Manoj Sarkar (bronze). Prior to this academy, Khanna worked with para athletes in a bare bones facility at a physical education college in Lucknow. GKEBA has four courts – two with Badminton World Federation approved synthetic mats for standing athletes and two wooden courts for wheelchair users. All 30 players live in the academy’s guest house – a bungalow just a few meters away. GKEBA also features a state-of-the-art gym, sauna and whirlpool hydrotherapy. The college facility had none of it. Yet there the likes of Bhagat, Nagar and Sarkar honed their skills under Khanna’s patient and watchful eyes. “We used to have a difficult time,” says Khanna. “We trained at loan facilities, but we all got along well. We would get by with whatever facilities we had. From the college facility we then moved to a larger hall of Babu Banarsi Das Uttar Pradesh Badminton Academy which is run by the State Badminton Association.”

Their hard work paid off in Tokyo. The medal win helped raise the profile of para-athletes and also brought in sponsors; Khanna has partnered with Ageas Federal Life Insurance.

But more than medals and sponsorships, training under Khanna at a specialized facility has, in the words of Paralympic competitor Palak Kohli, “changed her life.” “I come here [and playing] Badminton gave me an identity,” says the 19-year-old.

Deep Jagdish Suryavanshi, 16, has been training at the academy for a year. What started as a hobby for the Dhule boy is now a passion. “I didn’t know there was an academy for para badminton players,” he says. “But when I found out about Gaurav from my district coach, I decided to come here.”

After checking out his players, Khanna gives them instructions on their training regimen. Then he starts training with his most promising young player – Kohli. Khanna is banking heavily on her winning more than one medal at the 2024 Paralympics. And it’s not just her; he is aiming for 10 medals in Paris.

For Khanna, a former national badminton player, the journey to making paraathletes world champions began many years ago. An employee of the Railway Protection Force, he was completing commando training in Hathras when he spotted children – some hearing impaired, some amputees – playing badminton near the station. “I looked at them and then started playing with them,” he recalls. “I decided to go ahead and learn sign language. I started coaching deaf players and became the head national coach of the Indian Deaf badminton team. After that, I completely focused on coaching para-athletes.” And he hasn’t looked back since. For Khanna, “It’s about giving back to society.” “More than being a good coach, you have to be a good person first,” he says.

Khanna has an eye for talent. He spotted Kohli at a mall in Jalandhar, her hometown, in 2018. He went to her and told her to train with him. She took some time to think about it before heading to Lucknow. Her journey since then has been nothing but wonderful, she says. “I never believed in fate, but now I’ve started to believe in it,” she says. It seems fate has a hand in it – she once wanted to play handball in Jalandhar but was dissuaded from doing so by her teacher; She asked Kohli to focus on her studies instead. “She told me that if I study, I’ll get a good job on the quota,” Kohli recalls. “I felt very sad.” From there she worked her way up to become a Paralympian. She beams when she talks about the Paralympics. “I was the youngest to qualify in three categories,” she says. “I was also the first Indian athlete to be in the mixed doubles semi-final.” She finished fourth and came home disappointed, but Khanna believes her time in Paris will come.

The medals in Tokyo attracted many aspiring para badminton players to the academy, but Khanna had to turn some away. “That would have been difficult to manage,” he says. “I stick to the quality and I don’t compromise on it.” He is also working on training more coaches. His wife and two children have been a great support, as have his bosses and colleagues in the RPF. “I want to do so much more, but I don’t have the infrastructure,” he says. “The will to work on the hard process [of working with para-athletes] should be there, rest, God was gracious.”

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