Table tennis is close to Bhavina Patel’s heart in the truest sense of the term. A pendant with two tiny paddles rests around her neck most times. It’s a present from her husband Nikul. “It’s almost like my mangalsutra,” Patel says.
But it is with the racquet in her hand that the 36-year-old has emerged as one of India’s top Para athletes. A left-hander with tricky spin serves and angles, Patel won a gold medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and a silver at the Tokyo Paralympics in her category. She was diagnosed with polio when she was just one, and has been wheelchair-bound nearly all her life. For years, she felt she was a burden on her parents. But table tennis has given her purpose and renown. Patel has a habit of screaming “fight!” after winning a point, and a fighter she certainly is.
Here’s a conversation with the Ahmedabad-based Patel on her journey, and the challenges faced by Para sportspersons in India.
You are a recognized name in Indian sports because of your performances. But for other people with disabilities, is it easy to pick up sports, or are there challenges?
There are definitely challenges because in India, we still don't have enough facilities, especially for Para athletes. There are no accessible academies, and there is not enough infrastructure. The support comes when you do well, but is lacking at the grassroots level.
What changes would you like to see?
Private academies should have a special quota for Para players so that they can train there. Financial support is also required because a Para athlete doesn’t travel alone. They need escorts (caretakers) and support staff.
You are covered under the TOPS scheme. Doesn’t that take care of most of your expenses?
TOPS is definitely a good thing. It pays for my expenses, and after my silver in Tokyo, I have also been granted the facility of an escort whenever I travel. But my point is about the support starting from the grassroots level. I feel there should be another scheme for upcoming players. If that happens, our medal count will improve further. I feel for the players who are starting out. I got a lot of encouragement from my parents when I took up sport. Not every person with disability has that support.
Who do you turn to when you feel low?
My husband. He knows right away when I’m low or demotivated. He then gives me a pep talk by giving examples of sports legends and how they overcame odds. I also do meditation and visualisation, and them I’m myself again.
What is the reaction of your neighbours in Ahmedabad when you return home from a big event like the Paralympics or the CWG?
Initially, my neighbours didn’t even know I was in Tokyo for the Paralympics. But when I returned, the ‘mahol’ (atmosphere) was celebratory right from the airport. A lot of people came to meet me. I had not seen anything like it. I particularly remember a young girl riding on a two-wheeler with possibly her grandfather. They followed me right up to my area and at one point the girl saluted me. It felt amazing and it made me feel like I can and I must achieve a lot more for India.
What exercises are important for a Para table tennis player, as you are not just playing shots but also operating the wheelchair?
Coordination is most important. At one level your brain is giving you a command as to what shot to play, and then you have to move accordingly. You need to be flexible and strong, especially in the upper body. So upper body and coordination exercises are the most important. Not to mention the mental aspect. That is why even between games I do focussed breathing and some meditation.
Every now and then after a point, you shout ‘fight!’
That’s right. ‘Come on, fight! You can do this!’