Image Credits: @palakkohli
Sports was never the first thing on Palak Kholi’s mind during her particularly early days but this did not prevent her to reach the pinnacle of para-badminton.
A famous surname tends less often than not be a boon in Indian sports. Palak Kohli, however, seems to be on the right path as she has made a steady and commendable rise in Para-badminton.
It is not often that Indian para-athlete players witness such early success at the world stage, and Palak is a refreshing diamond in the rough.
Having made the international debut last year, Palak could finally showcase her talent to the world audience and has already won four BWF international tournament medals during the Tokyo Paralympic qualification competitions as she now seeks to win a medal for India at the 2020 Summer Paralympics Games.
Resisting the pull, she bravely sought a big opportunity across the waters, and it appears to be paying off.
After years of struggle, the 17-year-old Palak Kohli has finally been able to live her dream as a para shuttler. Hailing from Jalandhar, Palak only started playing the game two years ago, she was a novice but thanks to attention and guidance given by her coach and role model (Mr Gaurav Khanna) she began to show more interest and discipline in learning the game.
Ultimately, Palak made the wise decision of focusing on badminton, as she wasted little time making her mark at the world stage, winning 3 national titles in the Girls Singles Under-19 category, Women's Singles and Women's Doubles and 2nd Runners up in Mixed doubles; and 4 International medals including Gold Medal in Women's Doubles and Silver Medal in Women's Singles at Uganda Para-Badminton International Tournament 2019; Bronze medal at Japan Para-Badminton International Tournament, which was the Paralympics Tokyo 2020 Test Event and a Silver Medal at the Peru Para-Badminton International Tournament is something to behold.
Palak is currently ranked 10th in the women’s singles in the SU5 category. She and her partner Parul Parmar, are inside the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic qualifying cut. The top six in the list published by the International Paralympic Committee will get the automatic qualification.
The National Institute of Open Schooling student has set her eyes on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, and she knows that she will have to perform at his highest-ever levels to get in contention in Tokyo, however, the sheer enthusiasm the young talent exhibit radiates enduring hope. She vowed not to be overawed by the experience. The massive potential that Palak has to be something really special is patient and will continue to improve.
The youngster has broken the social barrier and carved her way in the sport of her choice. It is heartening to hear of those who defy the odds to become champions in a sport they have chosen to pursue.
When did you start playing Badminton? What actually got you interested in the first place?
Actually, I did not choose badminton, rather it chose me. It may sound weird, but this is how it happened. God has his own ways. It came into my life as a divine as a blessing. It started with an incident that really changed the direction of my life.
One day while I was coming out from the shopping mall with my mother, on our way to our car I met a person, he stopped us on our way and asked me a genuine question that what has happened with your arm. I was quite familiar with this question, so I replied that it’s by birth. He asked me and my mother if we know about Para sports?
For us, the word Para Sports sounded very new. He specifically asked about Para-Badminton, He was non-other Mr Gaurav Khanna sir who is our Indian Para-Badminton Team Head Coach. We took his words lightly as I never thought of making my career in sports as in my school, I had often heard from my teachers that sports aren’t meant for me. Gaurav sir told us about his training schedule and also encouraged me since I was young, that I can also make a start and can excel to great heights. He also gave us his contact details, which my mother wrote on a piece of paper. Then, we went our own way and so did sir.
A couple of incidents happened with me at school, in society. I was always refused to take part in any of the games in my school. I tried every game but everywhere I heard that sports aren’t my cup of tea. I took all their words to my heart but just those positive and encouraging words of the person whom I met outside the mall started hitting my mind again and again. That day I decided that I will prove myself in the field of sports and will show everybody especially our Indian society that I am incredible and there is no field where the disabled child is less than anybody.
Later, I told my parents that I want to start playing badminton, they also supported me. Though it took me some time to make my mind to start badminton. Then there were coaching problems in our city. As my mother lost the paper on which she wrote the phone number of Gaurav Khanna sir, but we remembered the name of him, we checked on Facebook and Twitter and somehow, we finally got reconnected with sir. Then sir called me to Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. I didn’t know a single thing about the game, but Gaurav sir kept on making me feel confident and kept on motivating me towards the game. Then, I went to Lucknow and started training. I started playing badminton when I was 15 years old, under the training of Gaurav Khanna sir; and I am currently training in Lucknow.
Who has been your idol/role model growing up? Any other source of inspiration that you have had?
My success story has one pole star. Reverend Mr Gaurav Khanna. My coach, my mentor, my idol and my guide. I could not have been where I am today, had I not met Gaurav sir. I admire Gaurav sir the most, the way he motivates, encourages, pushes us beyond our limit.
Are you good in your studies as well? If yes, how do you manage sports and studies? How’s your school/college been supportive of it?
Yes, I am good at my studies. In such a pressing schedule of practice and tournaments, my school and my teachers play a big role. My teachers are so caring and helpful that they provide me with handy notes and readily spare extra time for me. It helps me perform satisfactorily in my exams.
How would you describe your playing style, and which shuttler would you compare it to?
I was a simple stroke player before but since last more than two years, I have learnt various new artistic styles of playing Drops, half shots, backhand, net shots etc and my strokes have been deceptive now.
Initially, it was highly inconvenient to change the previous style and cope up with the new style of playing but now I am used to the new stroke and I am happy to play deceptions and power strokes now. I am getting praise from fellow athletes now and I am also getting strong in doubles. Even I feel that my backhand is also getting stronger day by day.
As a player, what was your strength? What are the areas you need to improve on?
I believe my strong determination and “believing in me” ideology is my strength. Unfortunately, my long period has been wasted due to my leg injury. Now, I have recovered but my coach is gradually putting a load on me. I wish to improve my leg strength to increase my speed, reach and jump.
Do you have any particular rivals in your sport? How much does having a rival motivate you?
In Para-Badminton, there are benefits of a smaller number of players around the world and low level of competition in a few of the categories like SL3 female. But this is not so in our case. In the female SU5 category, we have the toughest competitors in my front especially the players from China, Japan, Denmark, Indonesia are very strong. Due to tough competition, my coach has set a very high target for me, which is good for me in terms of my motivation to improve faster. I know that my path towards an Olympic medal is not easy, but I am determined to cross the path and bring the crown of success.
When I started participating in Paralympics qualification events, no one expected that I could make a cut for Paralympics but I think because of these high targets only, I am the only athlete from the country which would make my debut in coming Paralympics in both singles and doubles.
What's your approach when an opponent suddenly starts playing opposite to his strengths?
I understand that I am the youngest and the most inexperienced player in the world to make the cut in Paralympics but I am not at all afraid of any change of strategy or strength of opponent because who so ever be the opponent, they cannot match the smartness, experience and knowledge of my coach who used to sit behind me for my every match.
Many players have routines, habits and superstitions when they travel and play badminton. Do you have any individual quirky things you do before a game or special item you carry with you in your bag that must go with you everywhere?
During the tournament before my matches, I often listen to inspirational songs. I talk to Gaurav sir regarding the plan that I need to execute during my game.
What goes through your mind during a long rally?
Haha, I am very possessive. I believe a long rally is like a healthy relationship. If continued for long, it should be my baby only. I mean I like to use changing strategies during long rallies and my training structure is making me very strong especially in long rallies so that I shall remain positive and patient and wait for opponents’ mistakes.
How does participation in badminton or sports generally benefit other areas of life?
Playing a sport gives us a healthy lifestyle. It teaches us teamwork and problem-solving skills. Badminton is supposed to be a gentlemen's game. Playing badminton boosts my self-esteem. It also reduces pressure and stress.
What is your biggest accomplishment in the time you have been playing badminton?
When I started training, our nationals were about to begin in Bangalore in 2017. I asked sir to participate in the tournament, he said, no and stated that we will produce you as a surprise for our country. Then next year, while my game started improving, our nationals were about to begin in Varanasi in 2018. I again asked him to participate, but again, he said no. He told me to concentrate on my training. But finally, last year, 2019 he told me to participate and said that this is the right time for me to play. I played my first National Para-Badminton Championship 2019 and I won 4 medals. I became national champion in 3 events (Girls Singles Under 19, Women's Singles and Women's Doubles) and 2nd Runners up in Mixed doubles. This was the happiest moment; my two years dream came true.
And since last year, I have won 4 International medals too. I won 2 medals at Uganda Para-Badminton International Tournament 2019, Gold Medal in Women's Doubles and Silver Medal in Women's Singles. Bronze medal at Japan Para-Badminton International Tournament 2019, which was also the Paralympics Tokyo 2020 Test Event. Recently this year I have won a Silver Medal at Peru Para-Badminton International Tournament 2020.
What are the challenges you have faced so far?
Well, as I have said previously, I was not much aware of the game, so those challenges were there initially, but Gaurav sir really took me under his guidance and developed me to what I am today. The other challenge was funding my dreams, where Welspun has played a massive role in supporting me not only financially but with the other aspects of my game too.
Recently, the Welspun Super Sport Women program has provided me and the other athletes with a nutritionist to look after our nutrition aspect of the game and with Welspun taking care of such various aspects it takes away a massive pressure off my shoulder and I can put my entire focus and dedication into my game.
What junk food do you like the most but have to force yourself not to eat?
Before playing badminton, I was a very fond lover of junk food. Every day we had a plan for meals in my family. My weight was 10 kgs more than what I am today. I love to eat momos, pasta and pizza but all these are old stories now. I miss them a lot. These are very serious questions for me. Please don’t ask these sensitive questions and help me to forget them. Hahaha…
Where would you want yourself to be in the next 5 years?
• For 2021 Tokyo Paralympics: One of the youngest qualifiers for Tokyo Paralympics and the medal winner in Tokyo Paralympics.
• For 2024 Paralympics: Nothing less than a Gold medal.
• In between the two:
A. The medal at Asian Games and World Championship
B. Contribution to Society: Changing society perspective towards the birth of disabled girls. We need to change social taboo as “Bechari”. Girl children are still not warmly accepted in our society. I wish to support and extend the Government campaign “Beti Bachao- Beti Padhao” towards “Beti Bachao- Beti Khilao”
• After 2025: Watching a movie on my story on the theme “How the discarded junk foodie girl became Paralympics Gold medallists” and the name of the movie would be “Stranger changed my life”, haha.
Winning an Olympic medal or World Championship medal?
It is just a target and a matter of time, not a dream.
Which celebrity do you want to team up with for a doubles match?
Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi sir
Non-Badminton players that you admire the most?
What was your longest rally?
During the Peru Para-Badminton International while playing semi-finals against the Turkish Pair along with my partner Parul Parmar ji.
What is your go-to shot?
Deceptive Smashes and deception at the net.