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How champions Padukone and Gopi stayed hungry and foolish

The final issue of the Whole Earth Catalog publication in the 1970’s carried a photograph of the early morning country road with the words ‘Stay Hungry Stay Foolish’ printed below.
Steve Jobs stated this in his memorable commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 where he admitted that he always wished that for himself.

Looking back at the trials and tribulations, successes and experiments of Steve Jobs’ existence, one can say that he really brought the phrase ‘Stay Hungry Stay Foolish’ to life. Yes and made it fashionable.

Today, almost everyone wants to adopt this motto. They see it as the attitude to have to become successful a-la Steve Jobs. But not everyone can be Steve Jobs. Just like not everyone can be a Nandu Natekar or a Prakash Padukone or a P Gopi Chand. That requires a special kind of hunger.

Gopi Chand

Gopi Chand was a true champion that walked through fire to become an icon of Indian sport. Jeong Mi-Kyeong/AFP

These were special champions who at times appeared foolish but only because they were hungry.

Nandu Natekar was the king of Indian badminton in the 1950s. He was touted as the craftiest player that India ever produced and renowned world over. Inspite of having a near perfect game, he would practice for hours insisting that the shuttle landed exactly in the corner of the court or on the line. But this was not sans hardships and some seemingly irrational decisions.

He shifted from the small Maharashtrian town of Sangli to bustling Mumbai to pursue badminton – at the time when sport was still known to be recreation and not taken seriously. At the age of 18, he stayed in a modest accommodation around the Crawford Market area and made full use of the opportunities that Mumbai provided. Natekar was a natural talent like no other and went on to win over 100 national and international titles for India in a career spanning 15 years.

Padma Shri Prakash Padukone, World Cup and All-England Winner, had no formal badminton training back in India. For most part, he was on his own, devising his own training schedules. Often, he would train so much that he vomited immediately after the training session. This was obviously neither a wise nor scientific method of training.

In his hometown Bangalore, he practiced in a badminton hall that doubled up as a marriage venue with ceiling girders low enough to obstruct any player trying the conventional high singles service or lift shots from the net. Yet, he was hungry enough to experiment and foolish enough to persist playing at those courts. After hours and hours of relentless practice, he mastered the art of hitting the shuttle accurately through those girders. It was this very control of the shuttle that helped him win the All-England title in 1980 at the Wembley stadium, UK, where the drift in the hall caused the other players to lose control on the shuttle.

I was fortunate to have played alongside Gopi during his heydays so I can claim to know Gopi and his quirks a little better. Gopi was the ultra-dedicated, determined and passionate sort. Through his career I have seen him experiment with so many training routines and techniques with the sole aim to succeed at the sport. He had an uncanny sense of self-belief and belief in his training methods. If he felt that the training schedule would benefit him in any way he would give it his 200 percent. Certain days his coaches had to beg him to stop training.

Apart from training, there was this time I remember, he heard that spinach was good for your health. He ate spinach untiringly for two months until someone convinced him that he was overdoing it. Another time, he took up yoga in order to help him mentally focus during his matches. Come rain or shine, a tough training session the previous day or a tedious journey, Gopi pursued his yoga every single morning without fail.

In fact he became such a pro at it that even the monk at the prayer room at the Sydney Olympics athletes’ village heeded his power of concentration. One must not forget that during this journey of badminton, Gopi went through three career-threatening knee surgeries and bounced back to end his career with the prestigious All-England title in 2001. Very few, if any, could be foolish enough to defy such odds. Thus, I can proudly say without any hesitation, that here was a true champion that walked through fire to become an icon of Indian sport.

Many a champions have subscribed to this motto. However, some others who lived by this motto might not have tasted that kind of success but all was not wasted.

My guru and father figure, Anil Pradhan, former national champion, reminded me of that just the other day. When he played competitive badminton in the 1960’s he lived in Dombivali, a suburb of Mumbai. He played matches at 9 am which meant he had to leave home by 6 am to travel a grueling hour and a half by local train to south Mumbai where matches were often played. The return would be after his matches in the evening. In case matches went on late, tired and spent, he would run to the station to catch the local that would ply at 50 min intervals at that time of night.

In fact, a couple of times he even missed the last local home and had to sleep on a handcart at the station. He played his heart out and without any financial support or encouragement. It was just a mad passion for the game. He said, “The hurdles were aplenty but we didn’t give up. We did it for the love of the game. Had we stopped playing then, players like you would not have had a chance to play at the level that you did.”

If you give it a serious thought, the generations before us set the stepping stones for our success – all because they were hungry and foolish.

Therefore, as Steve Jobs wished for the Stanford graduates to be ‘hungry and foolish’, I too sincerely hope that the youngsters in the badminton fraternity have the heart to stand by this motto - for themselves as individuals and to breathe life into the sport and keep the ball rolling or should I say, shuttle flying.

Maybe, they will all be able to say: i-hungry; i-foolish; i-happy.

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