Meet the man who turned India into Para Badminton kings

In sports, numbers rarely tell the whole story. But there are some stats that will make you sit up and take notice. Like the number 47. That is the number of medals won by India at the Uganda Para Badminton International 2021 which ended on November 21st in Kampala. The haul included 16 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze medals. Of the 18 categories played at the tournament, India failed to make the podium in only two. In six of the categories, India finished with a clean win by taking all four medals on offer (both losing semi-finalists received bronze).

This was a statement performance by the Indian para-badminton contingent who made an impressive breakthrough at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. When the sport made its debut at the Paralympics in September this year, India won four medals, including two gold medals.

Also read: How Palak Kohli beat the odds to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics

There is one man who is credited with India’s sudden rise in para badminton. As Pullela Gopichand brought Indian badminton into the 21st century and created a blueprint for the sport’s success, Gaurav Khanna lifted para-badminton from obscurity and into the limelight. Since he was appointed chief national coach of the Indian para badminton team in 2015, the country has won a total of 386 medals.

Khanna, 45, was a badminton player himself. But a knee injury with the U-22 national team in Bharuch, Gujarat in 1998 ended his playing career prematurely. Instead of wallowing in disappointment, he qualified as a company commander in the railway police and completed his commando training.

Also Read: India’s Paralympians Defy Odds to Triumph in Tokyo

In 1999 Khanna was stationed at Hathras Railway Junction where his journey back into the sport finally began. “Some of the hearing-impaired children used to live on the ward,” says Khanna. “They had no family and stayed together. They stole bags and were involved in some petty crimes. I thought these kids are small and it’s their age to play. I just bought some racquets, shuttles. I told them to stay away from pickpocketing.”

In the evenings, Khanna played badminton with these children in front of the train station. He soon learned sign language and began communicating with people with hearing impairments. Khanna completed a Bachelor of Physical Education from Lucknow University, earned a Diploma in Yoga and completed a coaching course at NIS (National Institute of Sport), Bangalore. He also twice coached the Indian team to the Deaf Olympiads.

Also Read: B-Girl Jo Breaks With Olympic Form

His first foray into formal coaching was when he was appointed State Coach of the Uttar Pradesh Deaf Team. Khanna’s knowledge and sensitivity set him apart and he went on to become one of India’s leading coaches for para athletes. In 2015 he took over the post of national coach of the Indian para badminton team. “India was preparing for the World Championships when he came,” says Pramod Bhagat, who won gold in the SL3 standing/lower limb impairment category in men’s singles in Tokyo. “He saw that there were many problems with the sport in India. There were no camps, facilities or help from the government. We used to go to Nationals. There used to be Super Series ranking tournaments in Odisha and Chennai. We would participate in nationally recognized tournaments such as Asian Games, World Cups and Asian Championships. But never open tournaments like the ones in Malaysia, Denmark. Maybe it was a lack of knowledge on our part, a lack of communication. He helped us with these small but important things.”

While there were some who were already playing the sport, Khanna had been the missing piece in the puzzle. Having worked in various capacities in parasports in India for the past decade, Khanna knew how to build a structure from scratch and get as little help as possible from the government and private sector. “When I became head national coach, I realized that nobody trains,” says Khanna. “The coach would just take the team to tournaments abroad, with no national camps. When I took over I applied for and arranged a camp at SAI, Gandhinagar. That was before we went to the World Cup in Great Britain. We have had very good results there. The players claimed that they need consistent training. First, I developed a common platform for athletes from all parts of the country and gave them access to professional training.

Also read: Rupinder Pal Singh and the resurgence of Indian hockey

“Unfortunately there are still no training modules in India according to the different disability classifications in badminton. We are training more coaches and trying to get players access to SAI (Sports Authority of India) centers so we can attract talent from all over the country.”

In the early days, during the national camps in Lucknow, the Indian team was based in rented flats and had to work out their schedules according to the availability of courts at a nearby badminton court. But the accommodation wasn’t handicap friendly and the seasons could mess up their training schedule. “I have a personal loan of approx 2 crore to build a facility for the para-badminton players,” says Khanna, without going into detail as to why the government has not set up a special national camp for para-badminton players. Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy was established in December 2019 on the outskirts of Lucknow. “It has four places for our national campers. Aside from that, we have a pool, jacuzzi, steam and sauna, ice bath, everything a modern athlete needs,” he says.

Also Read: Indian Rugby Takes Baby Steps To Become A Professional Sport

Besides building the setup and creating bespoke training plans for the 60 players under his supervision, Khanna is always on the lookout for talent. He spotted players like Suhas Yathiraj, Palak Kohli and Manoj Sarkar and selected them for the national camp. Yathiraj is an IAS officer who won a silver medal in the SL4 class (standing/less impairment compared to the SL3 sport class) in Tokyo. Sarkar is a three-time world champion and Kohli was the youngest in the Indian badminton contingent at the Paralympics.

“The fact that people are texting on an Indian bus means we’ve exceeded all of their expectations,” says Bhagat, whose personal coach was SP Das. “Apart from the knowledge he brings to the table, he is always open to suggestions and takes input from players before making a decision. He made sure we stay like family.”

Also Read: Where Are India’s Young Tennis Stars?

With Khanna nearby and seniors gently guiding the country’s younger players, Indian para-badminton has risen like a tidal wave. Khanna’s contribution to the cause received a government stamp of recognition when he was awarded the Dronacharya Prize in 2020. 18-year-old Kohli, who won two gold medals and a silver medal at the tournament in Uganda, knew nothing about parasports, let alone badminton, until a chance meeting with Khanna in 2016 outside a Jalandhar mall. With the help of her parents, she tracked down the person who gave her a dream on social media and went to Lucknow for a trial.

“He was the first to tell me that I could also do sports,” says Kohli, who suffers from upper extremity impairments. “It wasn’t easy for my family to send me to a new city, but they had faith in me and my coach. I believe in the saying, “A good coach can change the game, but a great coach can change life.”

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

Also read: How Rohit Sharma is proving himself as India’s T20 captain

Leave a Comment