Yes, this is really the reason why United States is a churning machine for Olympic champions.
Yes, this is really the reason why United States is a churning machine for Olympic champions.
How was the atmosphere in your family when you first started playing Basketball?
I was always encouraged by my family. I don’t ever remember being told not to play. My father got me a basketball goal when I was little. I and him were never too close but he still got me that goal and that was a really big deal for me. I started playing from the elementary school. I was never discouraged from playing unless I was in trouble which looking back I think I always was. I guess I just got lucky.
Did being a girl ever make it difficult to pursue sports?
It was hard as a girl. As a little girl you generally suck at Basketball. You aren’t strong enough neither tall. You are just really not good. But then you are a little girl and everyone would try and be nice and let you play with them. Though it is a different story that they would never pass you the ball.
I had two brothers and I had to be dependent on them when I was little. They would always want to play video games while I would want to be on the basketball court. Trying to get them to the park to play was a major hassle, very difficult to accomplish. I will also say that in America there is a clear distinction between how many people watch women sports versus men sports. There is a difference in the numbers.
Though luckily once I was in school it became much easier. Playing basketball became routine. It was like going through the stages- figuring out what you want to do, and then you try to convince your parents to support you. If they don’t that sucks! But if they do you are good. In America it’s not too hard to get on the team, because everyone wants to do it. Sports is huge here. It is pretty well accepted and popularised. Everyone doesn’t want their kid to be a professional athlete but everyone wants their kid to do something they love and be good at it.
How is the structure of city in relation to sports?
Structure is all the same in every city. How far you get as an athlete is just based on how you move up in the structure. It is based on your skill level, confidence and how hard you are ready to work. I always felt like I was always better than the other girls. Because I was playing basketball as a little girl and most of the girls didn’t really care so much about the sport.
Before you go to elementary school they have private organisations or local city organisations. Like city of Richardson has a YMCA where they have the T-Ball leagues where you just pay and join the league. How you join, how you get involved it is all online now. So it is pretty structured that sports is offered by every city. Most cities offer these programs.
This is through your Parks and Recreation department and hence publically funded. I just played in the park across the street in the park. I would always play with the grown men. I never played in the private league.
How is the school structure in regards to sports?
School really structures it very easy to move up. Because for the most part if you want to play you can play. It’s not like in college where you have to meet a certain skill level. Most schools offer whatever is the most popular sport. The demand for the sport comes from the parents and students. When a school is built the infrastructure is built to accommodate all the popular sports. But if the sport is not available and a lot of parents and students want to play Badminton, for example, the school needs to make sure that Badminton is offered. It could be through putting the court up on the basketball court. The school is responsible to direct the operation and fund it.
The infrastructure is paid for by school. You can attend a school and know that your child can play a sport. It’s not like an unorganised structure where you have to create a place for sports. It is already ingrained in the school system.
How do you start competing in sports?
You compete against elementary schools in your school district. There is some kind of zoning involved. It is a hierarchical structure. It ends at national level. You can play till the national level in the high school and not in the elementary school I think.
You don’t play privately for the district state or the national (Like we do in India where we represent our district or state). The only way you go up the ladder is by representing the school. The only time we play privately is during the summer for the summer league. Playing for the school is a much bigger deal than playing private leagues till high school.
Do you get any added grade or marks for being an athlete in school?
You don’t get extra marks or grades for playing a sport in school. You just have to participate in a Physical Education class
How do things change from high school?
When you are trying to be a professional athlete you get scouted by professional leagues. Scouting agencies know everything about you. Right from your performances from the elementary school level to high school. So once you get to high school you are scouted by colleges. Depending on your skill level you are also scouted by professional leagues. Now you have to graduate high school to play. I don’t think it’s a requirement that you have to graduate from college to play professional sports though. Professional leagues are totally privatised.
How do you get recruited into the professional leagues or colleges?
If you are really good you don’t have to be worried about getting recruited by a college. There is a very structured format and regulations about how they can recruit you. They send you an email and then talk to your coach and tell him they are interested in his player. They can solicit themselves very much. You can then visit the schools and look at the programs they offer and make your decision. Legally colleges cant incentivise athletes to come to their schools. It is against the law. Though it does happen.
How did you get into University of Texas in Dallas?
I got a few letters from various places. I knew I wanted to play college sports. I wasn’t getting letters that they would pay for my school. I wasn’t that good but there are athletic scholarships too. But it’s a just recruiting process based on your skill level.
I wanted to play sports but academics was very important to me. So in my case I approached the UTD basketball coach and UTD is small and their athletic program is not massive so it’s not impossible to get in. I just asked the coach of my school to approach the college coach here. I had to go to try out which is called ‘walking on’. And then I got selected into UTD.
Does playing a sport have any benefits for you once you retire?
Playing a sport does not guarantee you a job outside sports. Though the professional level has insane amounts of money. They get a lot of money from advertisement. Almost every advertisement in US has an athlete in it. The future after sport is into sports. Most of the athletes here may not have a college degree or be professionally trained to do any other jobs. Athletes who are well equipped will be wanted by a lot of companies for marketing but the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim. Here it’s like sports is your only career and the funding is here for you to make a choice like that. You don’t need to have two careers. Sports is it. You can go all out with being an athlete without giving it a second thought because there is so much money in it. And I think that’s why America has like a 100 medals in the Olympics.
Though you can’t play sports forever. It’s like finding that balance is difficult. Once you retire you don’t have the educational training and then it does become a depressing turn of events. Because you go on skipping the steps that would get you ready to have a career after sport. For those who didn’t weave education and sports together it makes it very difficult for them after sports. If they don’t have educational training than all you can do is get a job that is involved in sports. Let me assure you though that it is not really such a bad option. Once you are a professional athlete money is mostly never an issue.
So would you say that sports in America is a public- private partnership?
Yes, I would add people into that. I think it is a public-private-people partnership. Like my school gave me the infrastructure and designed a structure to play Basketball. Nike a private company sponsored my apparel in school. Nike came to our school not as charity but because it was a great marketing strategy. Why was it a great marketing strategy? Because hundreds of people would come to watch our matches, whatever level of match we were playing. I hardly remember playing a match without an audience. We are blessed that way being athletes in America. The whole of America be it public-private or people invests in us. Be it their time, money or values. It is therefore no wonder we produce so many stars.
It was 6th October 2008 and my birthday. It was a special day. I was in Bittburger, Germany and I was scheduled to play the finals of the Bittburger Open Grand Prix against Maria Febe of Indonesia. It was only the second time an Indian woman since Saina Nehwal, had broken into the finals of a Grand Prix event in Badminton. I was ready for the final. I was having problems with believing I was playing the final but I was keeping all of that aside and was focused on winning.
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The further away I go from home the closer I get to my memories at home. Memories are a beautiful thing. A photo, a song, a name anything can trigger endless images in your mind’s camera. Though I have slowly come to realise not everyone remembers everything. Like my friend Amreen she called me and confirmed the place three times yesterday about meeting her at a particular coffee shop today. I reached there at 5 sharp and got her message in caps at around 5.10 ” WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?”. I called her and she told me she was in Starbucks at Irving while I was sipping coffee at Starbucks in Richardson atleast 20 miles away. We didn’t meet finally. Thanks to Amreen’s elephant memory. Though I have a good memory and more so since I have been living away from home. Sitting at the Starbucks where Amreen never came my mind went back to one of the scariest yet funniest incident of my life. It is a story where my mother left me in the middle of the street in Bombay when I was 9 years old. I call it “The Red Sunny Story.”
My mother was the busiest woman I knew. She would wake up at 5 in the morning make tiffins. Get us ready for school. Take the 7.45 local to Bandra. Come home at 2. Have a quick-lunch and take me to Andheri West to play Badminton at 3. After all this if I didn’t try hard enough on court it was bound to make her pretty angry. I was doing exactly that, on that day. I was in real bad form. My mother saw me play and asked me when I came out of the court in Marathi, “I know the shuttle costs 75 rupees but that doesn’t mean you should never hit it! Where you seeing stars today?” We quickly wrapped up after session and headed out to get home. My mother then rode a Bajaj Sunny. A Bajaj Sunny was literally a small bicycle with an engine. When wind blew real hard there was a decent chance of the driver not needing to use the accelerator at all to move the Sunny forward.
We reached the Bajaj Sunny and mother had to kick atleast 20 times to start its engine. Every kick after the second one raised her anger by a certain degree. ” I wish I could sell this idiot. (Bajaj Sunny) ” After the 20th kick the ‘Sunny’ roared like our night watchman in Pune roared from his sleep, after calling his name 20 times at the gate when I used to reach home post 11pm . The journey began. My mom was constantly talking about how I should try harder. I was too tired to pay attention so I ignored. She suddenly stopped at our usual bread provider’s shop and told me to get down and get bread. She wouldn’t dare stop Sunny’s engine. So I went to him and he told me the bread had got over. I came back and told her. ” Oh God! What will I make for breakfast tomorrow? Today is just not my day.” I waited for her instructions. “What are you looking at? Sit quickly.” She yelled.
We crossed two signals and mother had got pretty silent by then. She suddenly saw another shop so she stopped. I got down, went to the shop and asked for bread. He had bread. I paid him the money and headed back to mother. She looked a little less angry now and seemed to have cooled down. I put my leg across the seat in the air and just when I was about to rest my bottom the Sunny moved below me. My mother went a little ahead. I was alright till then but then she just kept going and never looked back. Yes! My mother had officially forgotten to check if I had sat on her five-star Sunny.
It took me a while to realise that mother had ACTUALLY forgotten me. The moment I realised I ran behind her, yelling and crying. She just would not look back. A lot of weird thoughts must have gone through my nine-year old mind. She hates me. I should have finished my milk in the morning. She must have checked my tiffin I didn’t eat the sandwich. On top of that I didn’t try hard on the court today. Oh God! I promise to be a good girl. Please give me one chance. Please! And so on.
If Usain Bolt was running beside me that day. He would have lost. But mother was riding her Sunny like a Ferrari. People on the road were looking at me like I was demented. Nobody has time in Bombay and nobody helps until you ask for it. I was just focussed on running and I never asked for help, so Bombayites chose to ignore me. After what was an eternity I lost all hope of catching up with mother. My run slowly was turning into a jog. Suddenly out of nowhere a Bihari man came on his cycle and asked me why was I jogging and crying. I told him, “Meri maa mujhe bhul gayi.” He told me to sit in front of him on the front rod of the cycle. Like Shah Rukh Khan, he said, “Lets find your mother. Main hoon na! Tum fikar mat karo. Chalo jaldi!” All this while I was sobbing continuously of course.
He followed the way I told him to. Thankfully I knew the way home. After about 1 km of this drama. We reached a one way, where my mother on her Ferrari/Sunny had to stop due to a red light. A rickshaw wala apparently got down of his rickshaw tapped her on her shoulder, and asked her. “There is a girl running behind (like she is demented) is she your daughter?” Mother looked back and she said she almost was going to faint. Her heart was beating so fast that she later told me that she felt like it had shifted from her heart to her ear. It was a one way so she had to get down of her Sunny, stop it’s engine (crap!20 kicks) and walk it back through Bombay traffic. In a minute or so we saw each other. I on the front rod of the bike started shouting ,”Aai!Aai!Aai!” She rushed towards me. I jumped out of the bicycle and hugged her tight. My mother was saying a lot of things to the Bihari cycle wala. I was not interested really. I was finally with my mother. God had given me another chance in life. I was just so grateful.
One thing has happened after this incident. My mother still cross checks (with her eyes) two times if the person behind her Activa has sat down. Once from the left and once from the right and only then does her journey begin.
My grandmother told me some of the best stories as a child. They ranged from fairies, witches, Gods, her friends, kings and queens, and robbers and policemen. The list could keep on going. After every story she would ask me what I had learned from it and tell me to give a moral to the story. After I heard a pretty intriguing robber-police story she asked me what I had learned and I had replied after a very thoughtful silence, “If I want to be a robber I will have to be smarter than the police.” She hit her hand on her head and hit me on the back. ” That is not the moral of the story you fool. The moral is to never steal because you will always get caught in the end.” Every story my grandmother told me was meant for me to choose and understand the right and the wrong. She would always make me choose a side.
As I grew older I realised at every moment in my life I will be given a choice and my grandmother was preparing me for it through her stories. As a player every decision I took was a choice. You have to choose if you want to get up early in the morning at six and train or sleep till 8. You have to choose if you want to practice six hours a day or three hours a day. You have to choose if you want to compete after your first major injury and make a comeback or quit the sport. You have to choose if you want to study as hard as you play. You have to choose between a dessert or no dessert because you are following a diet. Everything in life is a choice, and most of the time you can always choose the chocolate cake because nobody is watching but you still choose not to eat it because you have chosen to be on the right side of being an athlete. (I did choose the chocolate cake sometimes. After seven hours of training I told myself I deserved it.) I had to make a lot of these choices from a very early age and out of all the choices I have made the hardest has been this -How am I going to deal with failure? Will I let it affect my motivation or will I use it as a fuel to reach success?
Being an athlete you have to mature very quickly and sometimes deal with life’s toughest questions even before you cross your teens. Hence to deal with the pressure very early in my career I exposed myself to meditation. I was fascinated by the stories of Mahabharata and sometimes would also indulge myself in reading a few pages of The Gita. I was also a fan of Gautama Buddha and Buddhism. A lot of my friends would laugh at my obsession and ask me , ” Are you going to become a saint now?” I never looked at spirituality as a philosophical subject. It always was very practical for me. I wanted to keep calm and be focused as a player and meditation helped me achieve that. I looked at meditation as a means to a victorious end.
Both Buddhism and The Gita talk about two fundamental things which have stayed with me and which I think has helped me the most as an athlete. The first is Karma yoga and the second is choosing the Middle Path. Karma yoga literally means doing selfless actions as a way to perfection. You set yourself a goal and keep working towards it in spite of your failures and success and never stop till you achieve your desired result. The second is choosing to be on the middle path. The middle path is your ability to react to failure or success in the same way. To be in a space where neither failure nor success can affect your inner peace. It is our ability to find a constant state of happiness. Both Karmayoga and finding that middle path are most difficult things to achieve but every successful athlete has dealt with them and has found his or her own way to achieve it.
To be successful in life the most important thing is to achieve a constant state of happiness in spite of failures and, to be centered in your emotions in every circumstance you face. If you are happy you think better, you train harder and you feel much more motivated. My friend once said to me, ” I am just waiting for that one moment in life where I can find extreme happiness.” I asked him ,” What if that moment doesn’t exist? Are you choosing to not be happy till then?” It is like Christopher Gardner says in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, “It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”
As an athlete you have to learn that nothing is permanent. If you have lost ten matches in a row you might win the eleventh one. If you have won 10 matches in a row you might lose the eleventh one. The most important thing in a player’s career is to understand that you can never react to success and failure with extreme emotion of either joy or sadness. Understand that life as a sportsperson is cruel and unfair. I still remember when I became the national champion for first time in under 13 I felt like I ruled the world. I came home to a party. I was getting phone calls from relatives and friends. I was on cloud nine. The next day in practice I was almost floating in the air. My coach made me play against an under 19 singles player and I lost under five in both the games. I realised my place and my standard in a match and knew there was really not much to party about. I realised very early that as an athlete you will get to celebrate only for a day. The next day you will be the most hunted player on the circuit and everyone would want to beat you and if you are not prepared you will lose. Treat success just like a stepping stone and a validation of your hard work and move on.
In my career as an athlete I have failed many times. I have lost matches on 11-0 and 11-0, without scoring a point. I have lost matches when I was leading 20-10 after winning the first game. I have lost to players ranked much below me because I was too proud to give them their due respect. I have lost matches because my knee was hurting and I won’t accept it. I have lost matches because of a bad line call. I have lost so many times and for so many different reasons that there have been times when I have questioned myself if I had chosen the right career. But looking back I do value these failures much more than the successes I have had. In their own harsh way failures prepared me for life better than the trophies in my living room.
Never play to lose, give all your energy to win. But if you lose learn, make improvements and know that success will come if you believe in it. I am going to end this post with a few lines of the poem that is framed on my wall. A poem called “If” by Rudyard Kipling which speaks about the impotance of choosing the middle path.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch; If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
I entered my first class for my Masters Degree with so much excitement that I feared my class mates would think of me as a freak. I was smiling from ear-to-ear and if I had lipstick on I would look like the Joker in Batman. The weird smile on my face was thankfully reciprocated by most of my classmates who were already in the class. While some also ignored me completely for which I will not blame them. I chose to sit somewhere in the center of the class. I think that was a wise choice looking back at my decision.
The class started to fill up and I had Patrick sitting on my right and Brendon on my left. Patrick is a African American who migrated from Africa to America a few years back. Brendon is blind. We are sort of the only representative of our species. Patrick is the only African-American, Brendon the only blind man and I am the only Indian in the class of 30 students. It isn’t too surprising that we connected on being the minority population of the class. For me personally I have never had a serious conversation with someone from Africa or a blind man and this makes the whole experience of learning much more exciting.
I have never represented a minority in my whole life. I was born a Hindu in a predominantly Hindu country. When I traveled the world and lived in London or Paris for training in my sport I saw Indians everywhere so I never really felt like a minority. ( WE ARE EVERYWHERE). This class is my first novel experience in being the sole representative of my country, at least in that small group and I try to make the most of it.
Learning with Brendon and Patrick on my side takes my learning experience to another level. Patrick being from Africa has this unique African accent and has a very different take on Governance and just life in general. He is so fascinated by India and her culture that most of the time when we are trying to discuss a case study in class our discussion always leads us to India. Like when we were discussing a policy on Aviation he asked me this, “So how much did you pay to get married?” I laughed for almost a minute before I answered, “Zero!”. It took him a while to digest that and we had a discussion about the dowry system after class.
Brendon on the other hand has this amazing ability to listen. Just really listen.” I can’t take notes. All I can do is listen really hard and hope that I remember everything.” And he does. He remembers mostly everything right from our first class to the class we had yesterday. It is just truly fascinating to see him recall everything word for word. It took me a while to get past his disability and to treat him normally. He inspires me in so many ways and at so many different levels.
I had heard a lot about studying in American universities to be a different experience. I just didn’t know it would be this unique. My class as a group is really a bunch of very decent and driven people who truly believe that they can change things through the system. Most of them work in Local Governments and their experiences help me understand and really appreciate what Government really stands for.
The class really is about learning to learn in a way I have not experienced before. The class just doesn’t teach me about Public Administration. I also know that it takes me exactly 157 steps to reach my class in the Green Hall building because Brendon who is truly brilliant and my friend told me this.
When my mother came to Mumbai in the 1989 she did not own a jeans in her wardrobe. She came to Mumbai from a relatively smaller town Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh. My mother did not ever feel the need to wear a jeans in Gwalior. She was comfortable in her long skirts, sarees, salwar-kameez and long dresses. When she came to Mumbai after her marriage she had only one aim in mind to get her Master’s in Music and Physical Education. Mumbai changed her. When she took the train from Andheri to Marine Lines where her college was she saw and met women who were free, liberated and confident. Here fashion was an important thing. It was not just about wearing a saree but more about why wear a particular saree with a particular bindi. Fashion was a very individualistic statement for women in Mumbai. For my mother nothing resonated more with her spirit than a Denim Jeans.
I now know that a jeans for my mother was a metaphor for her struggle, her hard work, her independence, her will to never give up and the fabric that made her feel very comfortable to pursue her dreams. Can a pair of jeans really mean so much? For my mother who came from Gwalior to this mad city apparently it did!
My mother after getting her degree worked in famous schools in Mumbai- King George in Dadar Hindu colony, Mahila Sangh and Arya Vidya Mandir in Bandra for the next few years. In all these schools my mother was a music and a P.T. teacher. She was the most sort out teacher for both her staff and her students. (One of her students was Prateik Babbar and she had met Smita Patil when she had come to pick Prateik from school.) I remember going to her school sometimes and seeing her surrounded by a flock of students all the time. It didn’t take me too long to realise that my mother was a rock star in a denim jeans and it was an absolute privilege to be known as Aparna teacher’s daughter.
Everything changed for her when my father was transferred to Pune after living in Mumbai for seven years. My mother didn’t like the city too much. The culture was different. People were too laid back for her compared to Mumbai’s hustle. Being an independent woman all her life she quickly started interviewing in schools. She cracked the first school she interviewed for and became a teacher in Sharada Vidyalaya. She worked there for a few years and then something happened that changed her life.
I was 17 years old and playing and preparing for the Junior World Championships in Bangalore. My sister was giving her tenth standard Prelims. My mother was on leave from school to be with my sister to help her prepare. One morning, my mother got a call on the landline from my teammate that I had broken my knee and was admitted in the SAI hospital. When I spoke to my mother on the phone a few hours later it was the first time I heard fear in her voice. I had never known that emotion in her before that for 17 years of my life. She was always a super woman for me who feared nothing.
After my surgery I came home on crutches with my mother in the Udyan train from Bangalore. After coming back from Bangalore I felt a change in her. My injury and the fear of me never playing again had shook her quite a bit. She decided she will not go back to school and give all her attention to my injury and rehab. She was with me all through the process. My diet, my exercises, my medication, my pain, my tears everything. I recovered and went back to training and then eventually competing. My mother though never went back to work after that.
In the last 12 years my mother went from being known as Aparna teacher to being known as her daughters mother and Manager Saheb’s wife. The Aparna before the Mutatkar got lost somewhere. After she left her job all her jeans were back in the cupboard she would never wear them because may be she didn’t feel the same in them. Why did my mother never work or do anything remotely selfish for herself in all these years?, is a question I am still finding an answer to. When I think of her sacrifice it always makes a dent in my heart.
The great thing about time though is that it has this amazing power to heal and change. After my younger sister’s marriage I sat down with my mother and we talked. This is what she said to me, ” This is the first time in all these years that I feel free. Really free. I think I have done a great job of making all three of you (my father, my sister and myself) decent human beings. Though I have no idea who I am or who I was 20 years ago. I want to sing, to dance, to teach,to travel, and write again. I want to be selfish and do something because I want to do it.” I listened to this and I told her that all three of us would stand by everything she wanted to do. We owe that to her.
In the time that has passed since my sister’s wedding my mother has joined a yoga course and is looking to be a certified yoga teacher. She has pulled down the harmonium from the closet and started recording her old songs. She has started writing again. She and my father are planning to start a catering business after my father’s retirement in the next two years. She is planning trips with her old friends. She is slowly getting her confidence back. When she sent me a picture of herself in her old jeans, the Aparna before the Mutatkar came back to me in a flash. I realised that a jeans is a metaphor for my mother. I can’t wait to be known as Aparna’s daughter again. Aparna is slowly finding her way back and she is doing it in a pair of jeans.
It is really never too late to rediscover yourself or for that matter wear that old pair of jeans kept somewhere deep in your closet. Go Aparna!
I still remember the day when I came home after losing to P.C. Thulasi in the Quarterfinals of the Pune National in June 2015. That was my last competitive match in Badminton. When I came home my parents and sister gave me a group hug and my father joked, “So already retired at 27? I am 58 and I still have two years to retire. What are you going to do now?” I smiled at him and realised I did not have an answer to his question.
Netflix has a documentary called, ‘Broke’, that talks about how 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement. For 78 percent of NFL players, it takes only three years. Sucked into bad investments, stalked by freeloaders, saddled with medical problems, and naturally prone to showing off, most pro athletes get shocked by harsh economic realities after years of living the high life. Ian Thorpe one of the greatest swimmers in the world confessed to dealing with depression and alcoholism after retirement. Abhinav Bindra in his book “A shot at history” speaks about how after winning his gold medal at the Olympics he felt depressed because he had nothing left to prove. Recently there was a full page feature in The New Yorker on Micheal Jordan with the headline “How Air Jordan became Crying Jordan”.
Dealing with retirement is tough and hard. You are used to a routine. You always have goals that you set for yourself to achieve. You are used to the adrenaline of competition and your will to win against all odds. You are used to the fame, the awards, the felicitations, and the applause. The day you retire you are set to lose all of this. Your life is much silent and you lose the limelight. There are no articles about you in the newspaper and suddenly you find yourself becoming a part of the millions of other people whose success is not merely defined by being featured in the newspaper. You have to change your definition of success from winning a match to something else which you may still not have figured for yourself. That realization for any athlete can be pretty intimidating.
I really can’t compare my achievements to the the great athletes I have mentioned above. They are way more successful and have a much bigger bank balance than mine. I can though compare myself with them for the love and passion I feel for my sport and a certain degree of hard work I put in the sport to succeed for 15 years. I too had to go through my share of post retirement issues and it was interesting to see myself go through it.
The best thing about being born to a traditional middle-class Marathi family is that you are a part of a tradition. A tradition which is based on age, marriage, and kids. There is a particular age to do things and they need to be done as prescribed by your elders. I have a lot of friends who defy this tradition and don’t believe in it. For me though I never had a problem being a part of it. I believe in marriage and family just like my parents do. For me it is a wonderful thing and makes life much fuller and complete.
Unlike my counterparts in the western world who are not big on fixed traditions or marriage for me being part of a tradition turned out to be a joyful distraction from retirement. My marriage took me to a foreign land, United States of America. In the first six months I realized my limitations as a house-maker. I had to learn cooking, washing, cleaning, rationing, budgeting, setting up the house, and decorating it. In a course of six months I set myself goals to get better in each of this department. I think my approach to this challenge was very athlete like. I refused to accept the fact that I couldn’t cook. Playing a sport makes you pretty tough on yourself. It is a blessing. From making chapatis in the shape of a triangle I started making round phulkas by the end of my six months. Believe me the joy of seeing a round phulka on the gas gave me as much joy as seeing my name in the newspaper. By the end of a year I had people come over the weekend for dinners and lunches. When some of them complimented me and asked me for an extra phulka because they loved my vegetable curry I did a small dance inside my head.
The one year post retirement has been a story of a lot of such small victories for me personally. Professionally though I have gone through anxiety and some tough patches. The H-4 visa in America gets tricky from the get go. You can’t work on this visa. Being an independent woman all these years, not earning was killing me. To keep myself busy I wrote a lot and self-researched on a lot of topics that I was interested in. Though I realized very soon that this alone was not enough to satisfy my needs. For quite some time I wanted to get a master’s degree. I started looking for courses in University of Texas in Dallas. Looking for a course in universities in America is a harrowing task. There are more than 100 degrees to choose from. My search led me to a degree in Public Administration. I loved all the courses the degree offered. Courses on Government, policy making, public management, non- profit organizations and so on. In my limited time working in NGOs and social sector I knew this is an area that I would love to officially be a part of. I applied for the summer term of 2016. After a series of tests, an essay, transcripts, grade evaluation and interviews I finally received my admit letter last week. When I visited the UTD campus and attended my first class I immediately knew I was in for a roller-coaster ride and an experience of a life time.
As I write this I am in a peaceful place professionally after a year of uncertainty and searching for a goal to per sue. This year made some very important revelations to me. I realized everything in life is temporary. The success, the failure, joy and sorrow. Change is the only constant. If you can embrace change, never resist it and actually use it to build you and not break you the world can be a pretty amazing place. A year and a half back I was a professional athlete today I am a student at UTD. The transition is not going to be easy. I am in a place where my past really doesn’t count and I have to start from zero. To never live in the past, to put yourself in a spot where you naturally don’t belong but you still try and make a place of your own. Isn’t that what life is all about?
When Henry Hudson an English sailor left the Dutch shore, his mission was clear: “FIND CHINA”. He set sail with his men and after a few months reached this massive piece of land to the east of the Atlantic Ocean. He called upon his men with joy. They finally found China. After a couple days of living on the land, calculating and giving it a thought, Henry Hudson realised it wasn’t China after all. As he left the island to continue his search for China, he named the island ‘Manhatta’ after the tribal people who lived on the island. He also wrote back to the Dutch West India company who were his sponsors, that although it was not China it was a great island which could be a port and a place where trade would flourish.
The first Dutch colonies arrived on the island of Manhatta in 1624. They soon realised the potential of this island. Being a vast resource of forest and animals they invested in beaver skin and the fur trade. It became a provincial extension of the Dutch Republic as of 1624 and was designated the capital of the province in 1625 and they called it ‘New Amsterdam’. The Dutch were not interested in anything other than making a buck. This purpose of the Dutch led the foundation of New York’s materialism.
The birth of ‘Wall’ Street
By the time Peter Stuyvesant started ruling this Dutch Colony in 1653 it wasn’t doing too well. There was disorder and chaos and people were leaving the island. In a span of few years Stuyvesant turned things around. He increased manufacturing and enforced policing to establish some order. New Amsterdam was flourishing again with business and trade. People from all quarters of the world sailed in to share the profits of the island. The first to come in were the Jews in 1654. Slowly the island had inhabitants from different parts of the world, with about 18 languages being spoken. The English rulers soon realised that this place was a gold mine and they needed to own it. Even though Peter Stuyvesant, the great one-legged General, would build a 2340 ft wall around the island to protect his colony from the English it would not help. The English would annex New Amsterdam in 1664 crushing the Dutch resolve. They would bring down the great wall in 1699 and name the street Wall Street. They would also give a new name to the island and call it New York, after The Duke of York to whom this island would be presented as a gift. George Washington would win back New York from the clutches of the English in 1776 when America would finally win her freedom from the colonies.
Man on the 10 $ Bill
George Washington had some great men in his first ever cabinet of the American Government. Alexander Hamilton was one of them. The most interesting thing about Alexander Hamilton was that he was an immigrant. He sailed like millions of other immigrants that came to the city wanting to achieve their dreams. He came from the West Indies. He was an orphan who studied, thanks to some wealthy men in his city. The same men would then sponsor his education at the Columbia University in New York. He loved the city and his passion for it soon made him one of the most important men in American history. Alexander Hamilton realised that the city could not just depend on agriculture and needed to get into manufacturing and commerce. He was the founder of the nation’s financial system, of the Federalist Party-the world’s first voter-based political party, the Father of the United States Coast Guard, and the founder of The New York Post. The foundation of banking, manufacturing and emancipation of slaves was all led as early as 1790 by him. His focussed vision for the city so early in time remains one principle reason for New York being the financial capital in the world.
Most powerful city in America
New York is one great human experiment. Hell, its a human miracle. It is a war between the human species and the nature, which the human species seem to have won. When Henry Hudson found Manhattan it was an island of hills, forests and lakes. It was in the early 1807 when DeWitt Clinton who is known as the greatest New Yorker of all time and was the Governer of the city had a vision. Realising the potential of the city he knew the had to build a city not just for thousands but millions. In 1807 he led out a plan with his team of engineers and architects for the city in a grid system. The map was 8 ft long, 12 avenues wide, 155 streets long covering about 1000 acres. Today when you roam around the city you realise even though you are surrounded by huge buildings on all sides you hardly feel suffocated. It is because there is the sea breeze coming in from both the sides of the island due to the grid system. DeWitt Clinton would also build the Eerie Canal which would connect New York to rest of America and Canada. It would take seven years to complete and man power of thousands of men. By 1825 thanks to the canal and the trade opportunities, New York would confirm it’s place as the most powerful city in America.
The city of Immigrants
The city and the great advancements made by it was followed by one of the biggest migrations in the world. Immigrants came mostly from Europe that was suffering from famines, poverty and corrupt government. In 1836 a ship carrying 15825 passengers sailed into the port of New York. Immigrants also came from Ireland, more than a million of them. There was a lot of African-American population right from the 1600s due to the slave industry. There were Jews, Germans, Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Italians; almost every race and religion in the world was a part of the New York population. Just imagine the confusion, the awe, the shock, the fear people in the city must have felt looking at each other’s differences. It is said that New York was a very democratic city. It wasn’t. Everybody was scared of everybody. A new immigrant was a danger to food, water, houses, jobs and thus also to the very existence of the present population. There were riots, (the period during the Civil War saw the worst riots in New York’s history), and protests all through the history of New York. But just like every great city New York would always survive and come back even stronger and better from all of it.
Who REALLY built the city ?
This great migration caused a lot of problems. The most important of them all was creating enough jobs. Most of the migrant population was not really educated and did not know English. They were of no value to the financial workings of the city. The New York city Government found the answer to their problem in public works. Every great structure that New York city claims today is a produce of the millions of immigrants that came to the city. The Erie canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, The Central Park, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, the subway system and so many more. What is ironic is that all these great structures were built between 1800 to 1900 ; a period when industrialisation and technology was not at all its peak. Most of the dangerous things that machines do today were done by human beings. The migrant population did all these things with great spirit. New York was the city that gave them hope, work, food and a shelter. It did not care about the language they spoke, the clothes they wore, the religion they practiced. If they were ready to work hard New York would pay them back in more ways than one. Some of the world’s greatest people from different fields rose in the this period of migration in New York. New York became a symbol for whole of America for how accepting different people would only strengthen America and not weaken it.
New York today is not very different from what it was in the early 1900s in spirit. It is still the land of opportunity, diversity, culture, pace, ideas and protests. It is the place where the richest people in the world live and also the poorest. There is an undying spirit to the city which is not brought by the massive structures in the city but by the people who live in it. I don’t think there is any other city in the world that can claim that the whole world lives in it. New York is the only city that can claim to be a city of the world and that in itself makes it an unforgettable place.
On 2nd March 2014 a tall man with curly hair, lean but strong walked into the RWE- Sporthalle in Mulhiem, Germany. He wore a t-shirt that read BHAT and INDIA right below it. Arvind Bhat at 34, was the oldest men’s singles player in the tournament as well as the Indian team. He had entered the finals of the German Open Grand Prix Gold. It was drizzling on the evening he stepped on the court. The match was scheduled at around nine in the night. He had followed his routine perfectly that day. Being a regular practitioner of the Sudarshan Kriya and Pranayam he knew the importance of focusing on his breath. He was constantly keeping tab on the intake of his breath and the speed at which he was letting it out. He had not talked much to any one that day. There was no discussion on a strategy to play Hans Vittinghus from Denmark, a player who has one of the best defence in the circuit. Arvind had decided to rely solely on his instincts. The same instincts that almost 12 years back guided him to take up Badminton professionally and choose a path less traveled. Especially when he already had an Engineering degree in his hands. Before I get to the German Open and Arvind’s historic win, it is crucial for me to talk about his journey. A journey that is nothing short of fascinating. The journey is always more interesting than the destination. The destination never teaches us anything it is always the way to the destination that has all the lessons.
Nothing about Arvind’s Badminton career is conventional. If you ask every top player in India today when did they start playing serious Badminton, the average age would be anything between 10 to 13 years. If you ask the same question to Arvind his answer would be 22. Yes 22 ! Arvind had almost quit Badminton as he was pursuing an Engineering degree. He did engineering like any other student. Regularly going to college and attending majority of classes. He would play Badminton as a hobby 3 times a week. He would do odd jobs for money to cover his expenses. His main objective at the age 18-22 was not trying to hit the shuttle on the lines but making money to support himself. But destiny had other plans. He got his first sign from the universe with a break to represent the Indian team when he reached the final of the National Championships in 2002. He did his first running and weight training session that year at 22. Mostly all professional players start weight training at the age of 14 (he was 8 years late). He was introduced to the concept of diet and supplementary diet only at the age of 26. At 22, another significant thing happened that inspired him enough to play the sport and listen to his heart; Pullela Gopichand won the All England Championship !
After joining the party pretty late compared to his contemporaries, he realised there was a lot of catching up to do. Even though he knew this he loved and enjoyed every change that Badminton brought to his life. The training, the hardwork, the sacrifices, the wins and also the losses. At 22 years of age it certainly takes a decent amount of bravery to completely switch your life from being an Engineer to becoming a full-time professional athlete. Courage is a very rare thing to possess. Arvind’s courage was put to test a lot of times all through his career. He had his share of injuries every year. He was regularly injured. He had a serious injury that needed surgery and threatened to finish his career in 2006. But he marched on with just one aim in his mind that he had to win at least one big international event before he retired. By the time he reached the peak of his career he was playing opponents atleast 4-5 years younger than him. They were faster, fitter, and stronger than him. But if he was ever worried about this, one never saw it.
I had won my first senior national the same year Arvind won his second national title. In the final he beat P. Kashyap. I remember very vividly that for most of us Arvind did not stand a chance. Kashyap was in such a great form. But all of us witnessed one of the most clinical, sharp, and brutal finals we had ever seen. Arvind won the match in straight games and showed us all some of his best Badminton ever. But that was not his best Badminton, not yet. His best Badminton came two years later in 2014. This time not just India but the whole world took notice.
A week before he played the German Open; he entered an all India event in Bangalore. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to play the event at all. He had a severe back ache and he was not too sure about playing. His physio, Muthu gave him enough confidence and asked him to play. Arvind lost to 15-year-old Siril Verma in the second round. After this loss Arvind had almost made up his mind to withdraw from the German Open. Though he knew that even if he didn’t play the German Open he had to go to Germany and play his club matches the weekend before the German Open was scheduled to start. At this point he was ranked 87 in the world. He was not sure if he would get a main draw entry in the German Open. He waited till the draws of the tournament came out. He made the main draw. He decided he was going all the way to Germany anyway, so he might as well play the tournament too.(Thank God!) He spent the one week in India doing weights, resting and meditation. He never entered court the week before he left for Germany.
He played two singles for his club in the club matches. He beat two decent players in the league. In both the matches he won beating his opponents in a under-10 score. These two wins were crucial to get his confidence back. Arvind had to play a higher ranked player right from the second round in the German Open. He was never scared of playing anyone in the draw. In fact his experience told him it was good to play top players in the beginning as they were most vulnerable. He beat Hu Yun in the second round who was world No.4 at that time. After passing the Hu Yun test he felt anything could happen if he really focussed. His back held up pretty well all through the match. Also the rest and treatment from the week before; which he thought would be a hindrance to perform; actually seemed to have helped him to peak.
The match against Hu Yun had drained him and he had to really dig deep inside for the win. It gave him the confidence of going right till the end. Although he also knew he could not survive the full week if he played long matches every single round. Fortunately the next 2 rounds he won quite quickly, in half an hour each. The easier matches helped him save some energy. He beat Darren Liew and Victor Axelsen in straight games. He felt he had luckily managed to save enough fuel to survive right till the very end. Arvind played a thriller of a match in the semifinals against Chinese Taipei’s Tien Chen Chou. Arvind had no problems in disposing off Chou in the first game after taking a 6-3 lead which he was able to maintain all through the first game. Chou however meted out the same treatment to Arvind in the second game when he broke off at 6-6 and marched ahead. But in the decider, Arvind fought till the end after Chou had stepped up his game. They battled from 6-6 to 14-14 with the lead changing hands frequently. Arvind was ahead by a point lead after that and even though Chou caught up at 20-20, he successfully staved off the challenge in the end.
If you ask a player how exactly did he win a final, it is very difficult to get a precise answer. Finals are always very difficult. You are tired both mentally and physically. You are in a zone. Arvind had played some great matches throughout the tournament. Vittinghus was a tough opponent, a fighter. Arvind had a lot at stake with this match. If he won this final he would create history. He would be one amongst ten Grand Prix Gold or Super series victories in the history of Indian Badminton. He would be the only Indian player to have won the German Open title. He would also be one of the few players in the history of modern Badminton to have won a 4 star event at the age of 34. Most importantly he was one win away of his very own dream title. That one title that he had worked towards for the last twelve years ! Though none of this was on Arvind’s mind that day. He had lost enough finals to learn his lessons from. He entered the court calm and confident. His control over his emotions worked wonders. He won the first set and took the lead in the second at 17-12. That was the first and only time he thought about winning and celebrating which soon made him lose focus and become complacent. After losing the second game he told himself to fight till he couldn’t fight anymore. He did exactly that. He kept fighting until he won. After the win there was absolutely no outward celebration on his part. He moved along the court with the calm of a meditating saint.
It took him almost half an hour to realise the magnitude of his win. Following were some of his initial reactions.
“Initially for the first 30 minutes or so I was quite cool. Also since I had trained myself to think like a Champion I behaved like one. Not too much excitement, not showing it too much. Just a cool demeanour. I had promised myself in the 3rd set the same too. No celebration if I win. But after about 30 minutes all hell broke loose. But only inside of me. I was like ‘I did it!’ I did what was unexpected and I did something which none of my peers had done. Only a handful of Indians had done this before me. Maybe about 8-10 people only. So I felt like Top 10 all time greats of Indian Badminton. I felt good and proud, but all inside of me. Nothing outside. Post 2 hours I had lots of congratulatory messages from some unexpected quarters. It looked like many people in India had watched it live simply because there was a cricket match of India which India had lost against Pakistan. So the disappointed crowd were channel surfing and found my win satisfying. “
Every player has their own story. What makes Arvind’s story different is that he did not start his career as a normal sportsman would. He had never played good level of Badminton till he reached the age of 22. He didn’t have any wins in the junior level to build his faith on. There are struggles, challenges, sacrifices, frustrations, injuries in every player’s life and Arvind had to face it all after 22 years of age. Being a champion is not age bound. He always found a way to get past everything and get to his dreams. It took him close to twelve years to realise his goal but he never lost sight of the goal till he finally achieved it.
Arvind’s journey teaches me a lot of lessons. Lessons in belief, in fighting society’s norms about age and careers, in making your own rules and sticking to them, in patience, in perseverance, in fighting the battle within and keeping the demons in check. Arvind announced his retirement recently knowing he had fulfilled his destiny and with no regrets. His German Open win will always remain an inspiration. Arvind Bhat is etched in history with the stars of Indian Badminton where he will always very rightly belong.