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How India soared to their biggest medal haul in Paralympics, Deepa Malik explains

PCI head Deepa Malik believes greater awareness, scientific approach and athlete-centric policies have helped India win 19 medals at Tokyo Paralympics
By Deepti Patwardhan

Krishna Nagar defeated Chu Man Kai of Hong Kong 21-17, 16-21, 21-17 in the final of badminton men’s singles SH6 (standing/short stature) category to help India finish the Tokyo Paralympics on a high. In a coming-of-age Games for India, the country finished with 19 medals (5 gold, 8 silver, 6 bronze) and created five world records.

It has been a massive leap from the previous best Paralympics performance, which had come in Rio in 2016 when India won four medals.

“In 2016, with the help of media and the support of government and policies helped us create an atmosphere which was accepting of para sports. People looked up to para sports as a prestigious platform to come and empower themselves and create the abilities beyond their disabilities,” Paralympics Committee of India (PCI) president Deepa Malik, who had won a silver in Rio, said during a press conference arranged by Eurosport on Sunday.

“When people recognised that this is a platform, they definitely started giving more focus, policies have become more inclusive. We have had direct support from the sports ministry, from SAI (Sports Authority of India). We ourselves (PCI) have regrouped. The latest federation wants an athlete-centric approach.”

Malik believes the increase in awareness has led to new talent emerging.

One of the biggest factors for the turnaround in India, according to Malik, is coaches being more receptive to new ideas and technologies. While earlier coaches were “more possessive” of athletes and believed they alone knew what was in their best interest, they are now seeking help from experts.

“Rarlier, whether it was physiotherapy, or nutrition, they seemed to claim to know (about) everything. They are now asking for physios, for injury management, for performance tests,” she added.

“They want to take an opinion of fitness and conditioning coach. If their athlete is not feeling well they want a mental coach for them. This whole acceptance as para sports as a mainstream sport, where the athlete is being put at par with able-bodied athletes has also made a huge difference.”

In the last three days, India’s medal tally at the Paralympics grew because of some show-stopping performances by the badminton players. Badminton was introduced to the Paralympics programme this time and India proved to be ahead of the curve as they grabbed four medals, including two gold, in the sport.

At the forefront of the para badminton revolution in the country is the national head coach Gaurav Khanna. He is in charge of the para badminton academy in Lucknow, where all the players for Paralympics trained.

“Now we have dedicated professional academy where we have all facilities, sports science equipment. It's small but we have dedicated courts,” Khanna said on Sunday.

“Till now, we had to book time slots and we could only play then. Now that we have a facility, we can decide on how and when to schedule the practice sessions. Moreover, when you play at this level, recovery is very important. Now we have a gym, steam bath, ice bath, Jacuzzi, hydrotherapy, whatever a professional athlete needs, we have it.”

Even during the pandemic most of the players chose to stay at the academy and train, despite not being allowed in any of the indoor facilities. They trained outdoors, on makeshift courts in the garden.

If India claimed with their best-ever medal haul at the Paralympics in Tokyo, its mainly because they went in better prepared than ever before.