Back when PV Sindhu and Manasi Joshi grabbed headlines for becoming world champions in 2019, there was another world champion silently dreaming the big dream.
Pramod Bhagat had just won not one, but two golds at the BWF Para World Championships -- in the SL3 men's singles and doubles categories. He was already World No. 1 in both the categories; and with his wins, undoubtedly marked himself as the favourite for the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics.
And yet, he was caught completely off-guard in the immediate aftermath.
"I can't explain what I felt after winning. I had goosebumps," he recollects. The para championships that year were held simultaneously with the regular event in Basel. "I was on the same stage as people I had always looked up to - Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu. Badminton greats like Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan, Nozomi Okuhara played on the same courts. It felt unreal."
What pulled him back to reality though, was one overwhelming thought. "The win guaranteed me an entry to the Paralympics," he says. Similar to the Olympic qualification rankings, the Race to Tokyo rankings were frozen for the para athletes too. However, only one tournament - the Spanish Para Badminton International - had to be postponed from the original Paralympic qualification period. Bhagat, who currently sits at No. 1 with a 1000-point gap between him and the second-placed athlete, is therefore, all but through.
Bhagat, born in the small town of Attabira in Odisha, was always a dreamer. "I was the quintessential honhaar baccha (dedicated child)," he laughs. "I always aspired to do my best, and I used to pick up skills pretty quickly. It was almost as if I had an in-built sportsman inside me."
Affected by polio at the age of five, he developed a defect in his left leg. However, not once did that stop him from pursuing his love for sport.
As a child, he loved cricket and was a proud opening batsman in local tournaments. In his teens though, Bhagat developed a new-found liking for badminton. "It was not very popular back in the early 2000s. But I was fascinated by it." As a 14-year-old, Bhagat would finish his studies to quickly go to a nearby playground to watch his school seniors play in makeshift outdoor courts. "When everyone would watch TV in the evenings, I would go and watch badminton," he says.
His dedication reaped rewards as he soon started training with them. "I had to wait a bit because I was a junior and was disabled, but once I started, everyone was impressed with my progress," he says. "I even became a district champion. That's how I decided to play it professionally."
He was then introduced to his first coach, SP Das, who he credits for shaping him as a professional para athlete. "He was my first mentor. I used to play outdoors, while it was an indoor sport professionally. He was the one who helped me make that shift, and eventually become an international player," he says.
He knew he was in for something special in 2005 when he won gold on his national-level debut. "It was unheard of. I won both the singles and doubles events," he says. Soon after, he made his international debut in the final edition of the FESCPIC Games in Kuala Lumpur in 2006. The Asian Para Games then replaced the tournament. "I lost in the first round, but to play internationally in a country completely new was an experience I would always look back fondly on," he recalls.
15 years on, he has won over a 100 national and international medals, including four gold medals at the World Championships. "Sometimes, I do feel proud of myself," he laughs.
With badminton's debut at the Paralympics nearing, Bhagat - supported by GoSports Foundation - is currently training at the Sports Authority of India camp in Lucknow. His next tournament, the Dubai Para Badminton International - the first para badminton event since February 2020 - is scheduled to start on March 29.
"I have been training for about 10 hours a day with national coach Guarav Khanna," he says. "Usually, my training schedule spans anywhere between six to eight hours, but now with the Paralympics coming soon, I am putting my best foot forward." Bhagat is focusing not only on physical training but on mental training as well "by dedicating a good amount of time just to practice strokes," he says.
"Bringing better perception skills to my game is my primary goal. I want to be aware of all possible strokes and what they may do, where they may lead."
While he acknowledges that a lot of his training time was lost during the lockdown, he believes that the forced time-off yielded good results for him. During that time, Bhagat was able to work on his weaknesses and leg movements through a mini gym provided by the government and GoSports. "I think I've utilized this time to work on my weaknesses and 2021 can be an ever better year for me than 2020 could've been," he says.
However, before that was set up, it was Sachin Tendulkar who kept him going. "Sachin ji had once said during an interview that while he was suffering from a tennis elbow, he used to take the stairs and climb up 10 floors to maintain a certain fitness level. I lived on the fourth floor and used to take the stairs too and climb up and down for an hour every day," he shares.
Juggling between singles and doubles is no mean feat, but Bhagat does it seamlessly. "If you know how to play singles, you will have an idea about doubles too," he says. However, he mentions that both forms are significantly different from the other. "Singles is more focused and aggressive, while doubles is a little more relaxed," he explains. "All you need is to have a partner you can trust. Manoj Sarkar, my partner [since 2013], and I, have a very strong partnership. Our communication is very good. Our belief in each other makes us click as a doubles pair."
At the end of it all, though, for Bhagat, the game boils down to mental preparation, irrespective of what event he is playing. "You can recover if you're physically tired, but if you're mentally drained, you won't be able to play," he says. "Juggling both is majorly about the mindset you're currently in. Body support is important, but if your mind isn't fit, body fitness becomes secondary."
Ask him about his mindset for the Paralympics, and he is quick to respond: "What Saina did for badminton in 2012 [winning bronze at the London Olympics] is what I aim to do for para badminton. I hope people tomorrow look at me and find the inspiration to venture into the sport."
His expectations? "Definitely gold," he says. "I will make my dream come true. I will make my country's dream come true."