The Tokyo Paralympics gold medallists is soaking in the adulation after finally landing gold in the biggest global competition on its debut.

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By Rutvick Mehta, Mumbai

PUBLISHED ON SEP 15, 2021 07:41 AM IST

Pramod Bhagat quite likes his new nickname.

“Wherever I go, people are calling me the Golden Boy,” Bhagat said in between his multiple felicitation ceremonies after returning from the Tokyo Paralympics.

Winning gold medals at the elite level is not new for India’s most successful para badminton player. He has earned five of them at the World Championships, and one at the 2018 Asian Para Games. Yet, the nickname was earned only his Paralympics gold last weekend.

“Whatever I have earned in the last 20 years—respect, medals, everything—is equal to this one Paralympic gold medal,” he said.

The 33-year-old has had to wait for a large part of those 20 years to even get a chance to reach here. Bhagat has been a competitive para shuttler since 2005, but the sport was not a part of the Paralympics till it made its debut in Tokyo.

“The Paralympics was my dream since 2012. It remained stuck in my heart and mind all these years even though I had to wait so long,” he said.

Bhagat landed in Tokyo as the world No. 1 in his SL3 singles category (athletes with minor lower limb impairment), with nothing less than a gold medal expected from him. “I tend to do well only under pressure. So even with all those expectations on me at the Paralympics, I had the same confidence. I knew that I will shine under pressure, that I am the best,” he said.

Bhagat’s mindset is in contrast to his personality. He calls himself a “chill” person, wearing a smile at most times, having fun on and off the court, not over-thinking about the game. Not even when he was 12-4 down in the second game of the final against Britain’s Daniel Bethell before he erased it and eventually wrote history.

“That’s my nature; you will never find me in a serious mood. I firmly believe that the more you play the game freely, the more you live each and every moment of it, you will be able to deliver that much better. If you become nervous, or even overconfident, it can spoil your game,” he said. “Even in the last match when I was down (at the mini-break), my thought wasn’t, “Oh, what should I do now?” My only thinking was to keep my cool, enjoy the game and give it the best. I just wanted to go back to the court and play. The opponent will take care of the rest!” he added with chuckle.

This carefree attitude has been with since childhood. Infected with polio from the age of five, Bhagat found his joy in sports growing up in a village in Odisha. Idolising Sachin Tendulkar, he picked up cricket and played it for much of his boyhood before switching to badminton. Competing with able-bodied athletes at the district level, his para badminton wings took shape when he met SP Das, his first coach who was himself a former international para shuttler.

Bhagat marks that as one of the two biggest turning points of his career; the second being when Saina Nehwal won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.

“It is because of Das sir that I became a professional para badminton athlete. And in 2012 when Saina won bronze, a badminton craze gripped the country. A year later, the BWF (badminton’s world governing body) took over para badminton, which gradually developed our sport and gave it a professional touch. These things played a key role in my career as well as creating the hype around para badminton, which in turn gave us the respect we thought we deserved,” Bhagat said.

However, much before the awareness and support for para badminton—and in turn for Bhagat—began to trickle in, he had to go out of his way to keep his sporting career on track. His father passed away in 2006, leaving him, his mother and five other siblings in financial stress. It forced Bhagat to take up a coaching role in a school in Bargarh, sacrificing his own training hours to teach kids the nuances of badminton for a few years.

“You have to do something to feed your stomach and run your house, because playing sport alone doesn’t do that; at least in my case back then,” he said.

But at no point did it derail Bhagat’s dreams, which are always on the move.

“When I competed at the district level, I wanted to excel at the state level. From there my goal went to national success, then an international medal, then winning a World Championship medal, then an Asian Games medal. Then I thought, “if Lin Dan can be a five-time world champion, why can’t I?” My dreams are never complete. As soon as one is achieved, I move on to another one,” he said.

The biggest among them was fulfilled in Tokyo, but even that will not halt the cycle.

“No matter how much you achieve, human nature doesn’t want to stop. After a small break, I will get back on my journey of chasing another goal, which is the 2022 Asian Para Games,” he said.

A few days ago, another one of his dreams was ticked off: meeting Tendulkar. “That’s a dream I had since childhood,” Bhagat said of his encounter with his idol. “When we met and spoke, he gave me so many instances where you can treat life and sports equally. He told me how to balance family and sports life, how you can manage both and how you can keep your concentration and confidence level up at this stage of the career. I believe his words will benefit me immensely,” Bhagat said.