Palak Kohli: India's History Making Para-Badminton Athlete
Badminton at the Tokyo Paralympic Games starts on September 1st, 2021. So many athletes will make history as this is the official debut of para badminton at the Summer Paralympics. One of them includes Indian para-badminton player Palak Kohli.
Last week, Badminton Asia released an article of the interview with India’s para-badminton coach Gaurav Khanna where he shared his personal journey, challenges, and dreams and their preparation for the historical Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. In today’s article, Badminton Asia focuses on Palak Kohli and her story, her progress, and her goals all of which have brought her to become the person and player she is today. At 18 she’s making history and carving her own path.
Here is the edited transcript of the interview:
1. How do you feel being one of the first para-badminton athletes at the Paralympics Games in history?
Being at the Olympics, it’s a dream for every athlete to qualify for it. And me, being able to achieve this at a young age, I feel so blessed because every athlete who starts playing sport in a professional way, he/she always admires and dreams to represent their country at the Olympics. As it is one of the biggest tournaments on Earth, it's very exciting and motivating for us to be on this platform and para-badminton is being included in the Paralympics for the first time so there is definitely a feeling of excitement. There are only a few days left for the games to begin!
2. What category are you entering in?
I have become India’s 1st and the only athlete to qualify for 3 categories for para-badminton in Tokyo Paralympics. 1st is women’s singles SU5, the second is mixed doubles SL3-SU5, and the third is Women’s doubles SL3-SU5.
3. How is your preparation for the Games?
The preparations are going very well because we now have the 1st professional para-badminton academy of India. Here we have all the facilities from having our own courts now because here we are a priority. Previously, when we used to train, at times we had to go to other courts, and everywhere we were only able to go within certain times when the courts were empty when the able-bodied players finished training.
So now we have a good platform and we have a home because whenever we feel like training, we go, and we do our training. Everything from schedules to timings is all dependent upon us, so it’s a great feeling and gives us more motivation and priority to work hard, giving us a morale boost to do our training.
And talking about the 3 categories, Coach Gaurav has a specific plan for me to play. Because every match, every category is different, so how I’ll play will be different, including game planning and strategy in the 3 events. It’s going pretty well and we are practicing hard for it.
4. Who do you consider your most feared opponent?
I don’t get scared of any opponents, I would say because I am entering into the circuit of para-badminton and starting out with my 1st international tournament in 2019, and now I am a part of the biggest event of 2021, the Tokyo Paralympics. In itself, it is a journey that is full of struggles and sacrifices. I don’t have a fear of athletes because I just have to give my best because it’s the biggest event. I don’t have to think of results or anything. I just have to give my 100% and if I give my best, the results will automatically become good. And fearing is not a solution. If I fear any athlete or any situation in my life, then I’m not a fighter. I don’t fear any challenges because I feel like having crossed so many past hurdles in my life, I can cross these as well. So it’s not a fear, but an opportunity for me to play with the athletes who are far older than me in terms of age, who are far higher than me in terms of maturity and experience, so it will be a great learning for me.
5. When did you start playing badminton?
I was a total junk food lover! I never thought of playing sports in a professional way, and I had to take some things close to my heart and sacrifice so many things for it. In 2016, I came out of the mall with my mother and my brother, and on our way to our car, a person asked me about my hand. It’s a familiar question because anybody who sees me for the very first time always asks me ‘What has happened to your hand?’ so I would tell them that it’s by birth.
The person then told me about para-sports. At that time that word was very new to us. We’ve heard about Commonwealth Games, World Championships, Asian Games, and Olympics but hearing about para-sports was something new for us. Then he specifically told me about para-badminton, and said that I’m young and if I start out with this sport I can do wonders. But for me to believe those lines was something impossible because here in India, society treats people differently. There are a lot of people who have negative attitudes towards people with disabilities over here. So they always tease you, and always sympathize with you and they call you names. So some stranger telling me that ‘You know, this is something that is meant for you’, that was very hard to believe, so my mother took their contact and we went our own way and the topic was closed for 7-8 months.
After 7 months, I had an annual day in my school where there was a game of handball which was newly introduced at my school. I went down for the trials along with my classmates but when we were just standing there in the queue for the trials, my teacher called me aside and said, ‘Palak, I hope you can understand but if you play you can be hurt and you can’t do anything in your life. So it’s better for you to focus on your studies as there are some quotas for handicapped people here in India so you can get a good college and a good job. Despite being a girl you can be independent’. So at that very moment, accepting these things or listening to these things are very hurtful and I felt very depressed and unmotivated as well. But out of all these negative things, I decided on one positive thing on my mind. Where everybody in society everywhere would say to me ‘This isn’t your cup of tea; this isn’t meant for you’, at least I still had 1 contact, so let me just try out for that sport. If I can be something in this, I can be an inspiration to young athletes and to other girls of our nation.
So with this thought, I went back home and told my parents that I want to start para-badminton. They were very surprised because when they asked me, I never said yes and I used to run away from that topic, but then I kept on insisting and they took it seriously and my father tried to get into contact with the person and we searched all over social media and we got reconnected, and that was Coach Gaurav Khanna whom I met in 2016. I feel like I was a fool at that very moment because I would’ve started the sport in 2016 itself! It took time for me to realize, and also for my ego and heart, now I have proved it and try to change the thinking people have of people with disabilities.
6. How do you find time to relax? And what do you do in between your training to reduce your stress?
First of all, having 3 tough sessions in a day becomes very difficult for me to spend my time with other hobbies as well, but whenever I’m free I love to spend my time listening to songs, especially on the way to our academy, or when I warm-up at the gym. I love watching movies, especially sports movies.
Stepping up into this sport has given me new wings, new dreams, and new ambitions in my life. So anything that is connected to me is connected to badminton. Everything is connected. And I think, stepping up into the Paralympics and becoming the 1st athlete to qualify for 3 categories in para-badminton, as a teenager I wish to achieve a Paralympic medal.
7. Who do you tribute most for your accomplishments?
Definitely the tribute goes to Coach Gaurav. If not for him, I would not have been in para-badminton, I would not have been sitting over here talking with you guys and doing interviews, and representing my country in such a high-level event. When I just started, I realized that I had to play this sport, and then my parents got reconnected with Coach Gaurav. The very next weekend they made a plan to visit and since then I have started from just holding a racket to where I am today.
This is a journey that keeps on going. There is a lot of dedication, determination, and motivation from the academy here. I get to see the other fellow athletes, World #1, #2, #3 and so many athletes playing and winning so many medals for the country. Here, since the time I started playing para-badminton, I never felt that I had a disability. Because of any exercise during our sessions, the Coach would always modify it and we never feel like we had anything that was lacking. He always had an alternative plan depending on the situation, and we live like a family, which is the best feeling. And I think that’s the best thing an athlete can have, which is good support from the coach. He believes in me and the 1st target he set for me was to become a national champion, which I became in 2019 in the very first nationals where he told me I was ready to play. And now definitely the targets are for the Paralympic podium and the preparations are going good!
In this interview Badminton Asia had with Palak Kohli, we got a great insight into all the hurdles she faced when she was young, from ignorance to people telling her that things ‘weren’t meant for you’, and even her own fears and ego. But we also saw that she wasn’t a person who gave up, that people’s doubt of her, became one of the biggest motivations for her to dream bigger dreams and achieve greater results. These things pushed her into becoming the para-badminton athlete that she is today. Whatever happens at the Tokyo Paralympics, Palak Kohli has already made history. As India’s 1st and only athlete to qualify for 3 categories for para badminton, she’s already an inspiration to people everywhere. She’s also continuously pushed for better awareness of people with disabilities so that they wouldn’t face more prejudice than they’ve already had.
Palak Kohli is not afraid of opportunities that come her way. She takes them bravely and heads on. To quote her, she says, ‘fearing is not a solution. If I fear any athlete or any situation in my life, then I’m not a fighter.’ She is a fighter and a winner. We hope the best for her and Coach Gaurav Khanna in this historical Tokyo Paralympics, where they can continue on making their mark within and outside of the sport.