Bhavina Patel interview: 'Was in tears, had no words when Sachin Tendulkar called to congratulate'
Firstpost caught up with Bhavina Patel, who became India's first table tennis player to win a medal at Paralympics, to talk about her performance at the Games, her key to success in Tokyo, the chat with Tendulkar, her early struggles and much more.
Life has changed for Bhavina Patel. Dreams are coming true. The silver medal at the Tokyo Paralympics has turned around a lot of things. She had never spoken to Sachin Tendulkar. Her dream was to meet her idol and inspiration. She's already got a call from the Indian cricket legend. It was an emotional moment that brought tears and motivating words. And she will soon get a chance to meet the Master as well.
Just like her idol, she's become an inspiration for many. Patel, who was diagnosed with polio when she was 12-month-old, set the court on fire in Tokyo, beating World Nos 2, 3, 8 and 9 on her way to the women's singles table tennis class 4 final. She couldn't bring home the gold as she lost to World No 1 Zhou Ying of China in the final. But It was fascinating to watch her unfurl those backhands with precision, control, and confidence. Her self-belief stood out as she became the first Indian paddler ever to win a medal at the Paralympics and just the second female athlete after Deepa Malik to achieve the feat.
Firstpost caught up with Bhavina to talk about her performance at Paralympics, her key to success in Tokyo, the chat with Tendulkar, her early struggles, and much more.
Life has changed after the silver medal, isn't it?
Yes, definitely. I had never spoken with Sachin Tendulkarji. He's my role model and inspiration. I got a call from him on Sunday. PM Narendra Modi sir, Sports Minister Anurag Thakur, Sourav Ganguly also called to congratulate. I feel special now. After winning the medal, the government has announced a cash reward. I am being treated as someone special. So life has really started changing.
Getting a call from your role model and inspiration and someone who you have followed all your life and dreamt of meeting one day...What was your reaction when you received the call?
Solid. If you ask this to my husband (Nikul Patel) then he would be able to tell you better (laughs). Maari paase shabdo nota. Hu sharuvat keviritna karu. Emni jode shu bolu. Mane kai shamjatu notu. Mari aankh ma pani bharai gaya hata and e samay ne kevirite handle karu hu noti samji sakti (I was lost for words. How do I start off? What should I talk? I wasn't able to get my mind to it. I had tears in my eyes. I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I didn't know how to handle that moment)
I told him 'Sir you are my inspiration and am learning a lot from you'. He said 'No, right now you have become an inspiration and a role model for the whole world'. He invited me for a chat over tea whenever I visit Mumbai and in between if he gets a chance he will surely meet me in Delhi.
How did you start playing table tennis?
In 2004-05, I came to Blind People's Association in Ahmedabad to do an ITI course. And there I had some of my friends playing TT. I started playing the game for fun by watching them. And while playing, I got so much attached to it that I started feeling that I should keep playing TT for 24 hours. Then the tournaments started to happen, National Championships took place and I started winning gold medals. Because of that, my confidence started skyrocketing. And I started preparing new goals every time. And while riding this journey, winning gold at the Paralympics became a dream for me.
When and how did you decide to take up the sport professionally?
I started taking professional training from 2008. My confidence started going up with the medals coming in. I used to feel relaxed by playing the game. And I started feeling that it's only table tennis that is giving me happiness and could become my passion. So, because of that, I decided I will go ahead in table tennis only.
What were the biggest challenges of taking it up professionally?
Financial difficulties were my biggest problem. I had already spent a lot while looking to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics. I had afforded the cost of a lot of tournaments. Because I didn't get any support from the government or anyone at that time. There were no sponsors so I had faced a lot of financial problems. And after that to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics, my father took a loan to get me here.
Yes, there are physical and mental problems but they can be solved by staying positive and doing exercises but the financial problem is such that you can't tell anyone, can't ask anyone, and can't think anything. Because the sources (of income) were so few, it was difficult to arrange for finances for the tournaments. And there are some expenses that you can't do without. My bat right now costs me Rs 25-30,000. The rubbers are costly. I can't compromise on the equipment for the big tournaments. We play on the table and on a wheelchair so the frequency of bat damage is also high. So spending on the bat once in 2-3 months isn't a small thing for a middle-class family. That was a very difficult time for me.
You kept on beating higher ranked players and reached the final, what was the key to success throughout?
My dedication and hard work. That is what reflected in my game. Hard work for me is when you strive for something, even when your mind is telling you not to, and you manage to achieve it. In a sense, there are many things that you don't have an option but to sacrifice. Like food, you can't eat spicy or sweet, you have to strictly follow the diet chart given by the dietician. You have to be very careful that you don't gain weight. After training with the physio, the body pains every day. A lot of times it happens that you are not in a state where you can even hold your bat. There are blisters on the hand because of continuously holding the bat for eight hours a day. Because of that, some parts of the hand have become so hard that it becomes difficult to hold the racket. So, after all this, waking up the next day, getting back to work again, and not compromising on a single thing is what is hard work for me.
There were a lot of uncertainties with the pandemic wreaking havoc, what was your mindset going into the Games?
My dream always was to win gold at the Paralympics. The Games had been delayed by a year already but I took it positively that it has given me some more time for training and to understand my game. By utilising that time, I tried to overcome some of my shortcomings. Yes, at the back of my mind there was tension because I had qualified for the Games for the first time and if it got totally cancelled, I will be back to zero qualifying points. And the financial problem was a big hurdle in trying to qualify again. So putting in that effort and solving that financial problem was very difficult for me. So, these were the questions in my mind, that if it gets cancelled, then how will I be able to fulfill this dream of mine. But I had so much support of God that it didn't get cancelled and it's because of my hard work, I've reached this stage.
What was your goal from this tournament, what did you want to achieve?
My goal was to get the gold medal. But yes, I have fallen short and left behind by a step. But in the next Games, I will surely try to go that one step further.
What were key aspects you had worked on before leaving for Tokyo?
I along with my coach had worked on a lot of things - analysing the foreign players via video analysis, reflexes, tricks, techniques, and services. We had worked on these things with precision which helped me a lot at the Games. It helped me understand the opponents' game and I was able to learn how to implement those things on the table.
What was your training schedule like in Tokyo?
I used to train for 8-9 hours daily (back home). But in Tokyo, we used to get just one and a half hours to practice due to the pandemic. It was a new table for me and to control the ball in one and half hours on that fast table wasn't easy. The other players had the experience of the past but for me, these were my first games and I found it a bit difficult to control the ball on the fast table but it was a huge learning experience.
Your confidence stood out during your matches, where does this confidence come from?
I train daily for that. I do yoga and meditation due to which I automatically gain confidence. I get inner power due to meditation. I have been doing it since my school days. And I would like to remember my guru on this occasion. I couldn't play in the 2016 Games and at that time I had become very tensed and had suffered a bit of depression as well. I wasn't able to concentrate on yoga as well, there were a lot of things going into my mind, a lot of thoughts. I used to stay disturbed full time.
But at that time I had got a new job and my senior Deepak Chaurasia sir supported me a lot. He used to give me Reiki (an energy healing technique) and helped me control my thought process. The time he gave me was gold. He motivated me to learn Reiki. After that, I did a Reiki course till second degree. The mental stability and strength I gained after that...you could see it on the table at the Games, the amount of power I was gaining and it was all because of Chaurasia sir.
You were meditating in-game as well, how much does it help?
It helps a lot. Table tennis is one of the fastest games in the world. It finishes within 10-15 minutes. Everyone comes to win on the table. So to control that time, to stay focused and confident in that time, and to make sure that that time belongs to you isn't an easy thing. There are times when you get hyper in rush to win points. So, at that time, mind control plays a very crucial role. And I use that time to control it via meditation.
Your backhand stood out in the tournament, it is your biggest strength?
Yes, placement and backhand pull are my strengths. And overall, mental power is my biggest strength.
What went wrong in the final?
I couldn't implement what I exactly wanted to on the table. Secondly, my opponent was faster, had good control over the ball and movement. Her disability was also lesser than mine. Even if I tried to bring her closer to the net, she was able to reach it. So it became a bit difficult because her balls were coming at me faster and I wasn't able to control them.
What has been the key to getting you at this stage in your career?
Of course my family's support. And Blind People's Association's well, for the platform they provided. I want to thank SAI, PCI, OGQ, TTFI, my coach, friends who are my practice partners, it's because of all of them I've managed to reach this position.
What was the feeling like getting the silver medal on the podium?
I was like, 'If I had won gold it would have been more enjoyable.' But I achieved in accordance with the hard work I had put in, so I don't have any regrets. But I still think if I had put in more effort I could have won the gold.
You had so many financial problems in this journey, this silver medal will take a lot of that financial burden off your head and help you focus solely on the game...
Right now it feels like the financial problems have almost vanished. Because Gujarat government has decided to award Rs 3 crore. Apart from that I am getting awards from other institutions as well. The financial support has started and I don't think that I will face financial problems in the coming tournaments. It will help me focus on the game solely.
Gameplay-wise what benefitted you in these Games?
In my final match, I couldn't implement exactly what I wanted. It was a learning experience for me. I got to know how and what I should prepare and what kind of hard work I should put in. So, I will start working on it as well now.
How much does this medal win have an impact on the Para sports in the country?
People's mentality is changing. The awareness is increasing and they are getting to know what the Paralympics Games are. A lot of players are coming to the front who will take inspiration by watching us and be a part of big tournaments like these and perform. Because of the support from the government, especially the financial support, a lot of players will come up and realise that by playing the sport at this level, you will definitely get the result. So people will get confident.
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