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A para-athlete should be known for her achievements, not her disability, says World Champion Manasi Joshi

After winning gold at the Para-Badminton World Championships, Manasi Joshi believes ‘anything is possible with sheer hard work’

She was on her way to work on a busy Mumbai street in December 2011 when tragedy struck. She was hit by a car and had to have her left leg amputated.

What Manasi Joshi did over the next eight years was fight adversity with such remarkable resilience that she became a world champion. Her triumph in the women’s singles SL3 category at the Para-Badminton World Championships in Basel preceded P.V. Sindhu’s World Championships victory at the same venue by a few hours.

Early start

Although she took to the sport early, Manasi didn’t dream of being a world champion. “I [started playing when] I was seven, coached by [Madhav] Limaye sir and [Vilas] Damle sir. Initially, it was just for fun and fitness. Honestly, my focus was on studies and I never had an ambition to take up badminton as a profession,” she says.

She graduated in electronics engineering instead and joined an IT company. It was after the accident that the idea of playing badminton competitively began to form.

Manasi credits Neeraj George, a badminton player and Facebook friend, with putting the thought in her head. “It was so nice of him. Those words of encouragement when you are down mean a lot, and that actually made me think, ‘Why not take up a sport?’ and that’s how I got into para-badminton.

Twist in tale: Manasi says she got into the sport for her personal growth, but it took her to a different level.

Twist in tale: Manasi says she got into the sport for her personal growth, but it took her to a different level.
 
| Photo Credit: K.V.S Giri

 

“By god’s grace, I could walk within five months and even go to office. When I started playing corporate tournaments and winning titles, people started appreciating me. Of course, the level of the game was not there. But I felt confident that I could play the sport and use it as a part of my rehab programme,” Manasi says.

The exposure to para-badminton tournaments, both in India and overseas, strengthened her resolve further. “I went to the Asian Games trials, I was not considered, but, honestly, I was mesmerised by the presence of many with different kinds of disability. For them, the body condition just didn’t matter. It was their sheer love for the sport. That was an inspirational sight for me,” she says.

“Things started looking good once I won silver in a 2014 National-level tournament and was recommended for my first international event in Spain. There again, I saw people with similar problems but playing one sport. That gave me so much positivity. I thought then that I should continue to play badminton with all seriousness.”

A chance meeting with chief national coach P. Gopi Chand in 2018 was a game-changer. “I was working in a bank in Ahmedabad, and Gopi sir was the chief guest at the Sports University. My colleagues suggested that I meet him, as they felt it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. When I met him, he was more than happy to welcome me [to his academy in Hyderabad]. That definitely was the turning point of my career.

“My game completely changed at the academy. I improved my strokes and began moving around confidently. And training alongside champion shuttlers like Sindhu and Saina [Nehwal] makes you realise how much effort they have put in to reach that level. That itself is an inspiration. So, it is not just dreaming but working to realise it.”

Gopi’s presence at Basel helped, too. “Well, he was there for the semifinal and watched the previous rounds… it was the same venue where he had to take care of the big names. It was huge moral support” she says.

What was his message before the final against Parul Parmar, World No. 1, defending champion and one of India’s most successful para-athletes? “He said I was playing well and executing whatever was taught. So, he just asked me to be calm, play all the strokes and not worry about the result,” Manasi says.

“She [Parul] is a great player and was not beaten before by an Indian at this level. Thanks to all the inputs from the support staff at the academy, especially coach J. Rajendra Kumar sir and trainer L. Raju, who studied her videos, I won the final. They worked on my strengths and fitness, and kept pushing me.”

Challenges remain

The 30-year-old Manasi says her “dreams have started becoming bigger”. After the Worlds gold, she is “positive anything is possible with sheer hard work”. But the life of a para-athlete remains incredibly challenging.

“I have had to worry about a lot of things, right from my prosthetics fitment to the way my body adapted,” she says. “The equipment is expensive [her foot cost Rs. 4.5 lakh]. All para-athletes require financial support to get them. And here I request the authorities concerned to waive off the five per cent GST on prosthetics. Let the equipment be much cheaper and why not India be the leader in producing them and selling them at subsidised rates?”

Manasi has received financial support from corporates and well-wishers. “Many understood my struggle, including Malcolm and Welspun Group, so much so that I don’t have to worry now about the cost of training and tournament exposure trips,” she says. But she has also had to devise out-of-the-box solutions, such as her campaign on Ketto, an Indian crowd-funding platform. “You will be surprised,” she says. “Everyone has a campaign and it has become very popular too.”

Has the general perception of para-athletes changed in the time she has played the sport? “Honestly, yes, much before I became the world champion, especially among the younger generation. For instance, no one looks at me differently,” Manasi says.

“A para-athlete should be known for her achievements, not her disability. Your identity has to change. After playing badminton, I have changed a lot, became extremely independent, motivated, managing my time and doing really well in my job [at BPCL],” she says. “I’m grateful to my parents. It is tough to be away from parents and you can imagine my position. But I took it up as a challenge. My parents never questioned my spirit to take on adversity and were very supportive.”

The Tokyo dream

Manasi’s next big goal is to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. She is disappointed that her category, singles SL3 (Standing/lower limb impairment/minor), isn’t a part of the event, but she is vying for a mixed-doubles spot, partnering Rakesh Pandey of Haryana. “The qualification is very tough,” she says. “We have to be in the top six. Right now, we are No. 13. But we have six tournaments to improve our ranking and are hoping to do so.”

A Paralympic medal — she also won a mixed doubles silver at the Worlds in 2015 and bronze at the Asian Para Games in 2018 — will add another chapter to an already incredible story. A great fan of Rafael Nadal, Manasi recalls how her visit to the tennis star’s hometown, Manacor in Mallorca, Spain, motivated her: “I thought, ‘If he has come from here, he really must have worked very hard to make it big.’” Manasi’s triumph against the odds is no less inspiring.

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