The crowds were cheering her during the rallies at the historical Wembley Arena. A billion hearts rooting for her. Even the gods I suspect were watching.
Our very own Saina Nehwal created history to become the first badminton Olympic medallist.
She was a medal favourite going into the tournament yet there was the looming threat from her opponents from across the border — the Chinese.
I suspect the winning formula lay right within the problem — ‘Chi’nese.
Chi is the mental energy and physical energy of a person combined. Saina knew that that if one had to beat the Chinese they had to have Chi completely in control.
So along with her high levels of physical fitness, she used the Yoganidra technique — one of the deepest forms of meditation to control the Chi. With the weight of expectations, performance pressure and formidability of the Chinese, this was another arrow in her quiver.
This is just one of the finer points in the path to that Olympic medal. But let me take you back in time a bit.
I first heard about Saina in the badminton circles around 2001. While traveling for one of the nationals, I asked Gopi about this youngster who was now training in his hometown, Hyderabad. He excitedly told me that the girl was very strong physically. Coming from Gopi, that was high praise and it certainly piqued my interest in this upcoming youngster.
I first played Saina at the Senior Nationals in 2004, when she was 14 years old. While I realised that what Gopi said about her strength was true, what really stood out for me was her never-say-die approach that was evident even then. She really toiled through the match never giving up on hope even though I was the top seed and by then national champion six times over.
Badminton pundits and Saina by her own admission, feel that a lot of other players have better technique. And to blunt this advantage that others may have, over the years Saina worked really hard at fitness to outlast and outclass her opponents.
While, I believe fitness is an outcome of dedication and discipline, at the highest level of competition in badminton, more is demanded of the champions. Finesse and technique had to be learnt if she wanted to score points of her opponents. But learning that was tricky. Enter Gopi. This is where her coach and former All-England champion P Gopi Chand has been exceptionally helpful.
They say when a student is ready, the coach appears. And Saina was ready to learn and to work harder than anybody else.
I believe Gopi was the right guru for Saina. With meticulous planning and innovation he has brought out the best in her slowly but surely.
I last played her at my penultimate National Championship in 2006. Though I won the match, I could see dramatic improvement in her speed, variety and accuracy of strokes and confidence. Her motivation was as powerful as ever. Here was a worthy successor to past badminton champions — ready to take Indian badminton to the next level.
As each year went by, I could see Saina growing and glowing in glory as she worked to conquer her fears and overcome her weaknesses one by one. She was ever ready to put in that extra effort to reach the very top. And she certainly loved to win.
Fast forward back to the present, Saina has became our heroine No 1 — first Indian badminton player to win the World Junior Championships, 1st Indian woman to win a Super Series title, 1st Indian woman to achieve a world ranking as high as No 2, and now 1st Indian to win a badminton Olympic medal. No wonder she has become the most sought after non-cricketing sportsperson in India.
I have seldom come across someone so committed in any field of life. So persevering to prove themselves, so determined to win. Her unfortunate loss in the quarterfinals of the Beijing Games spurred her on to prepare 100 percent for London 2012.
Today I feel immensely happy and proud that Saina has achieved her dream of an Olympic medal because I don’t think I can think of anyone who deserves it more.