Tokyo Olympics 2020: Spurred by heartbreaks of the past, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran eyeing the promise of future

As he achieved his childhood dream of qualifying for the Olympics, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran could not help but remember the terrible personal tragedy of losing his father and missing out on Rio 2016.

Amit Kamath March 20, 2021 08:35:30 IST
Tokyo Olympics 2020: Spurred by heartbreaks of the past, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran eyeing the promise of future

File image of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran competing for Dabang Delhi TTC during the 2019 Ultimate Table Tennis League. Image courtesy: Focus Sports/Ultimate Table Tennis

A heady cocktail of emotions swirled in Sathiyan Gnanasekaran’s mind on Thursday. The paddler had just wrapped up his victory over Pakistan’s Rameez Muhammad in the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament on Thursday—which assured him qualification to the deferred Tokyo Olympics—but his mind was simultaneously darting ahead to the promise of the future, and getting sucked back into the heartbreaks endured in the past.

Athletes like to talk about staying in the present. One point at a time. One game at a time. One opponent at a time. But as Sathiyan achieved his childhood dream of making it to the Olympics, he could not help but get caught in the whirlwind.

“After the match against Rameez, lots of things were running through my mind: missing the Rio Olympics, losing my dad at the time, and the years of struggle,” Sathiyan told Firstpost from Doha on Friday. “I’ve been playing to make it to the Olympics from my childhood, but the last five years were really hard and strenuous. I worked day in and day out to be a strong contender. The years of sacrifices, my mom’s strong willpower after losing my dad, my coach Raman (Subramanium) sir’s determination… all passed through my mind.”

Sathiyan admits that during the game against his Pakistani opponent, he was already thinking about the Tokyo Games. “I was already thinking about the Olympics when I was 10-2 up or something at one point… But just before winning the last point, I got a flashback of how the struggle has been in the last five years to come up to this level. It was very emotional. After the match, when I came back to my room that’s when I felt the real emotions coming. I spoke to my mom and my sisters what we had gone through in the last few years as a family.”

Sathiyan’s father passed away in 2015 after losing a battle with cancer. It had a debilitating effect of him, who also missed the cut for Rio Olympics, after skipping a qualifying event in Guwahati. The two incidents also strengthened the then 24-year-old’s resolve to compete at the Olympics.

“In 2015, I was very close to going into the Olympic qualifiers when my dad passed away. It almost threw me back to square one. I didn’t know how to react, and how to go from there. We’d lost an important member of the family. Everyone was devastated, but that’s when I felt that I played like I played as if I had nothing to lose. What more did I have to lose after losing my dad? That really changed me as a person. I started playing more aggressive table tennis, taking more risks,” he said.

Raman, who had been coaching Sathiyan for a few years by that time said, “The first one and a half months (after he lost his father), it was tough to even talk to him because he was devastated. Later on when he started playing, our focus was not the Olympics. The focus was to get him playing and get out of this mental state.”

Raman started setting Sathiyan small goals as he returned to competition. In 2016, he won a Pro Tour title in Belgium, and followed it up with the Challenge Spanish Open title a year later. In 2018, he helped India win its first Asian Games medal—a bronze in the men’s team event—and a Commonwealth Games gold.

Sathiyan credits his mother’s support and his coach, Raman’s, determination that got him through the long journey from the debacles.

“I had to start from scratch mentally (after my father passed away). I worked with a mental conditioning coach to focus on the sport, and a fitness trainer and a dietician. I started to be more professional and having a disciplined life. That was the key to making it to the Olympics,” he said.

The first brush with the Games

Sathiyan first saw the spectacle that are the Olympics in 2004, when he was just 11. He was captivated by the sight of South Korean Ryu Seung-min, who went on to win the gold medal.

“The aura of the Athens Games was tremendous. That’s when I felt that even I should one day be at that big stage. I have literally grown up seeing those five Olympic rings,” said Sathiyan.

But for a boy coming from an academically-inclined family, it was not easy to focus solely on the sport. He juggled both engineering and his professional career for a long while.

“I had to manage both academics and sports till the age of 21. Once I got a job at ONGC, things started to work well. Raman sir also came into the picture then,” said Sathiyan, who is also one of the selected athletes under GoSports Foundation’s Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme.

When Sathiyan first met Raman, the former was ranked somewhere around 450 in the world, and not yet a regular in the Indian table tennis team.

“I had to re-engineer his technique. It was bad back then, and his footwork was poor too. But I noticed a spark in him: he had good timing. In a racquet sport like table tennis, that’s a good thing,” Raman told Firstpost on Friday.

Playing through pain

At the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament this week, Sathiyan’s challenge was not just mental, it was also physical. He had been nursing a shoulder injury since the final of the table tennis Nationals a month ago where he beat his more seasoned compatriot Sharath Kamal. Even as he celebrated winning his first Nationals title, the swelling in his shoulder was a cause for concern, given the international tournaments which lay ahead.

“I iced it, did a lot of physiotherapy, used heat pads relentlessly for the past one month. But because we had a lot of back-to-back tournaments, the pain would still return,” he says.

Sathiyan’s discomfort has been visible throughout the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament with him needing to be treated with pain-relief spray after going up 2-0 against Sharath.

“There was a lot of pain. But when you have the Olympics in sight, all pain vanishes. Playing through the pain was worth it,” he said.

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