Pramod Bhagat has made winning a habit. The para badminton star won three medals—a gold and two bronze—at the recently-concluded Para Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, where India finished with its best ever tally of 111 medals. The 35-year-old has the rare distinction of winning a gold in three majors—Paralympics, World Championships, and the Para Asiad.
One of six siblings, the Bihar-born shuttler pursued the game despite financial hardships and a physical disability—he was diagnosed with polio when he was five. He was adamant on proving his naysayers wrong and believes, despite his achievements thus far, there’s still plenty left for him to achieve. Currently World No 2 in singles, he’s now set his sights on winning a gold at the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.
Bhagat speaks to Forbes India about his recent purple patch, preparation for big tournaments, his strengths, and role model—Sachin Tendulkar. Edited excerpts:
Q. What is the significance of the three medals that you won at the Para Asian Games?
This was a big event before the Olympics, and I am glad that I won a gold in singles and bronze in men’s doubles and the mixed doubles. I had hoped for a gold in the men’s doubles too. This was my fourth Asian Games, and I was keen on defending my 2018 gold. I am happy with my victories… I still have three tournaments to compete in—Japan Open, Dubai Open and the World Championship in Thailand. Those are important for my Olympic qualification.
Q. You were trailing 13-18 in the last set of the singles final. What was going through your mind then?
I did not think it would get so close. I have won several matches out of nowhere previously, but this was a difficult game. My opponent [Nitesh Kumar] was Indian and that’s what made it a challenging affair—he knew my weaknesses, playing style and pattern. My mind was blocked at 13-18, but I changed my approach. I decided to focus on each point. After I won three points on the trot, I grew in confidence. I gave it my all and that worked.
Q. You are a star shuttler with a gold at three major championships. What goes on behind the scenes to taste such success?
When you reach the top, it is difficult to maintain that position. You are not alone who’s working hard; athletes the world over strive to achieve their goals. However, when you win a few tournaments, you gain confidence and believe in your ability. You believe that you can win from any position. That positive thought helps you make the impossible possible. It was my self-belief that helped me win from 13-18.
Q. You have been World No 1. Give us an insight into a champion’s mindset.
When you become a champion, you always think you are the best. I think on the same lines—that I am the best and that I can win against anyone. I study my opponent and adapt my game accordingly. I devise a strategy that’s often useful. For instance, in the 2021 Paralympics, I was down 4-12. I changed my game there too. It was windy, and when I’d lift the shuttle cock, it would go out. If I hit it softly, it would land straight in my opponent’s hitting zone. I then began playing flat and benefited immensely. Eventually, I won the game. One should be calm and cool at all times—your mind works best then. You can think clearly. That comes with experience too. Whether in life, sport or my training style, I work on myself and my thought process all the time.
Q. What are your strengths and where do you think you need to improve?
My strength is my self-belief. That keeps me going. I keep improving myself. It doesn’t matter how hard you work; it matters how you execute things, especially during crucial times. One needs to improve always. And I am always ready to learn. It’s something one has to do all their life.
Also watch: If you are not succeeding, you are learning: Paralympics gold winner Avani Lekhara
Q. When did you begin playing the sport? What were the hindrances?
I started playing the sport in 2002, when I was 14. Initially I used to be scared that I’ll fall and get hurt. I also faced a lot of hardships in those years. But I was adamant on making a name for myself. Despite the hurdles and obstacles, I did not give up. Eventually, I began playing with seniors and participating in junior tournaments. I got to know of para badminton only when I started playing for the state in 2005.
Q. What about the financial pressure? And the lack of infrastructure?
There were financial struggles initially. There wasn’t much support from the government and my economic condition was not good either. My first coach SP Das supported me a lot in that phase.
Q. You were detected with polio at the age of five. Did you ever feel like giving up?
I never felt like giving up. My father would encourage me, saying I could do anything. Since my childhood, I have been open to doing all kinds of work and that’s my strength. A lot of people would dissuade me, saying you won’t be able to do it. So, my constant aim was to prove them wrong. Today, people are more accepting of sportspersons, especially para athletes. Youngsters don’t have to struggle much now. We had to prove ourselves. It was only then that we got support and appreciation.
Q. How does government support help sportspersons like you?
It spurs you on. For example, during the exchange programme, you get to interact with top foreign athletes, go to their countries and learn new techniques. All this is because of government support… our equipment is being imported, and there’s an infrastructure boost as well. We are aggressive in promoting sports as one can see with initiatives like Khelo India. When the government does all this, the athletes can focus solely on their game. Corporates are also pitching in financially. That benefits us immensely. When the government supports you, or the prime minister appreciates your performance, you feel the world has come together to help you win. There’s a lot of opportunity for youngsters today, many doors have opened for them.
Q. The prime minister has also praised you.
I’ve met the prime minister more than 10 times. He speaks freely with us. We can discuss anything with him with an open mind. And he’s receptive to what we tell him. That gives us a lot of confidence that we have the backing of our prime minister. It motivates us to do well for our country. He had called me personally after my Olympic gold. All this is inspiring for any sportsperson, especially a youngster.
Q. Are you looking forward to the qualification tournaments for the Paralympics? Are you confident of winning a medal?
I am confident of defending my gold medal [at the Paralympics]. And I am getting all the necessary support. At times, there are issues with acclimatising to the weather and food. So, we plan to go to Paris in January and have a training camp for two-three months. We are focussed on our target.
Q. What’s your advice to upcoming athletes?
I would tell them to work hard and go ahead in life. Today, our society, government and people will accept you and promote you. You’ll just need to put in the effort and show results. The sports fraternity will also stand by you.
Q. Do you feel athletes get enough attention? Or is it reserved for cricketers alone?
Cricket is a different universe altogether. Their stature, obviously, is bigger, and even the kind of attention and publicity cricketers get is massive. But they are trying to come into our world—trying to participate in the Asian Games, Olympics. A sport like cricket coming into the Olympics will help us, and we’ll be able to move forward together. Some of our athletes are already superstars—Neeraj Chopra is one of them. He’s often compared to cricketers. So, sportspersons other than cricketers are also getting attention. And I believe we’ll be rubbing shoulders with cricketers in the coming years.
Q. Do you follow other sports? Who do you look up to?
I do watch long jump, high jump. I am highly impressed with Sheetal Devi, the 16-year-old archer who won two golds and a silver at the Asian Para Games. I am inspired by her journey. She comes from a poor family in Kashmir, and winning medals, and getting a hashtag like ‘armless archer’ is a big thing. There are other promising youngsters too.
Q. Who’s your role model?
My role model is Sachin Tendulkar. I like his conduct, behaviour and sportsman spirit. There have been times when he’s been given out when he wasn’t, especially when he was batting in the 90s… he’s such a big player, he could have objected against those wrong decisions, but he never did that. That stuck in my mind. It’s inspiring. I met him after my Olympic gold and we bonded well. He advised me on managing life and sport, and how to balance the two. He also told me how to overcome crucial phases in sport. His support and encouragement mean a lot.
Q. What are your goals?
I have only one goal—to defend my gold in the 2024 Paris Paralympics. The country has lots of hopes on you once you win a gold medal. And I don’t want to disappoint. So, I’ll work even harder. My immediate goal is to win the World Championship. I have won it four times. I want to level Lin Dan’s record of winning it five times.