Colors of Courage: Paralympic gold medalist Pramod Bhagat conquered physical obstacles to make India proud
Paralympic gold medalist Pramod Bhagat conquered physical obstacles to make India proud.
Few have dominated para badminton as wholly as Pramod Bhagat has. Hailing from a small town of Attabira, Odisha, Bhagat comes from a family of six brothers and sisters. Despite having a deformity in his left leg after contracting polio at the age of five, he has ascended to the highest levels of honour in the world of para badminton. “I have never considered myself to be impaired. I've always told myself that I'm the best from the beginning. I never let myself down.”
Bhagat recalls, “I was in 9th grade when I heard about a tournament being held at a bus stop. I went there and started playing. Even though I lost the competition, the driver and conductors remembered me because of how I played. My father and I were riding in the bus one fine day when the conductor asked for a ticket and my father gave him the money; he recognised me and didn't ask for the money because, according to him, I had played the other players so brilliantly. That day, my father was really proud of me, and since then, I've grown more interested in the game; the path has stayed lovely, despite many challenges.”
Pramod had discovered a new love for badminton as a teenager. He’d finish his studies and rush to a neighbouring playground to watch his classmates play in improvised outdoor courts when he was 13 years old. He recalls, “For a year, I stood outside watching my seniors play badminton, and I wasn't allowed due to my disability and also because I was a junior, but the following year, with the help of my friends, we built our own court and began playing badminton.”
“I also began playing local club matches and open competitions in the village after that. This was the golden period of my life during which I battled and learned a great deal. Today, the world knows who I am, but back then, it was my hard work that propelled me to this point.” Pramod's first competition occurred when he was 15 years old, and he competed in the regular category. His audience boosted his confidence, motivating him to continue his badminton career.
It was in Bhubaneswar that he completed class 12 followed by ITI and he soon qualified for the Tokyo Paralympic games. “My favourite subject in school was math. I even did well in matrix, but my focus shifted to badminton after that. There was also a time when I had to take my 12th grade exams while still competing in the World Championship 2009; during that time, I chose to play the tournament.”
The 33-year-old Arjuna awardee from Odisha speaks of familial support saying, “Initially, my family was not very supportive of me because they believed that because I am disabled, I should concentrate more on my studies and live a good life. But badminton piqued my interest. My father began to support me as I started winning and proved myself. I had a rough start, but now I'm on my feet. My father has always been a strong supporter of me.”
Pramod’s father passed away in 2006 as a result of serious health problems. He had to compete in a national event at the time. He insisted on sticking with him, but he was urged to go play by him. He agreed to go, but by the time he returned from the event, he was no more. “A good sportsman balances his life and work, and I attempted to do so to some level. But I was not here when my father was sick; I was at a sporting event. However, my life is now more organised, and I am progressing in a more positive direction.”
He explains how a talk with his childhood idol helped him along his journey. “I grew up loving cricket, which is why Sachin Tendulkar inspired me. When I later met him, we had a long discussion about life lessons he provided me for my future endeavours. Sachin ji’s competitive attitude is what drives me and what I adore the most is his ‘shant swabhav’. He helped me realise the importance of family in life,” reveals Pramod.
Life hasn’t been a cakewalk for Pramod, as his career in sports demanded single-minded devotion. There was a period where he would practise for 16 hours in one day, coach others and even train himself, as well as manage his daily domestic responsibilities. He was the one who looked after his family when his father passed away. “You're not supposed to run away from challenges; instead, you're supposed to battle them. I believe you are the only person who can defeat yourself; no one else can,” Bhagat gushes in confidence.
Over the span of his career, he has won 107 international and national medals to his name, including four gold medals at World Championships and a Paralympic gold. “I've been my own biggest cheerleader. Before I get onto the court, I never consider my coach offering me advice or encouraging me; instead, I focus on one thought: that I will win and give it my all,” admits Bhagat.
Pramod is ranked world number one in para-badminton men's singles as well as doubles and became the first Indian to win Olympic/Paralympic Gold at the just concluded Paralympics 2021. In 2022, he received the Padma Shree Award, and in 2021, he received the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award. His message to all the aspiring Paralympians is, “It doesn't matter how long you practise or how much hard effort you put in; what matters is how you feel about your game. This has been my life's policy: think of yourself as the finest person you can be and give your all in everything you do,” he grins.