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How Palak Kohli beat the odds to qualify for Tokyo Paralympics

Whenever doubts begin to crowd Palak Kohli’s mind, she goes back to the piece of paper where she has jotted down her life in two columns: positives and negatives. “There are 27-28 things in my life that are positive,” she says. “More than half of them are permanent. In the negatives, there are only four to five things and most of them are temporary.”

The chirpy 18-year-old has a way of seeing things sunny-side up.

Kohli doesn’t have a fully developed left arm – a condition she’s had since birth. However, that hasn’t stopped her from qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics, the youngest para badminton player to do so.

Kohli is ranked No 12 in women’s singles SU5 (Standing/upper limb impairment) category and No 5 in women’s doubles and has sealed an Olympic berth in both events. In doubles, she will team up with India’s Parul Parmar.

“It is the first time that para badminton is part of the Paralympic Games, so it’s a golden opportunity for me,” says Kohli on the phone from the national camp in Lucknow. “If I look back, the way I got into the sport, it makes me feel like I’m meant for it.”

Palak Kohli training with India’s para badminton coach Gaurav Khanna.

Kohli, who hails from Jalandhar, was used to the glare of sympathy during her school days. “Whenever we had PE class, I wanted to play with my friends but my teachers or elders would always dissuade me from it and ask me to focus on studies.”

It was in late 2016 that she heard of para sports.

“As I was coming out of a mall with my mother and brother, we met this man,” she recalls. “He first asked me what had happened to my arm. Then he told me that there’s such a thing as para badminton and that I should try out for it. That world was completely new to us and I didn’t give it a second thought. He went his way and we went our way.”

But a few months down the line, an incident occurred that ended up making Kohli giving sports a shot. When she showed up for handball trials at school one day, a teacher took her aside and told her it’s “not good” for her to play a sport. “Already you don’t have one arm, if you play you could hurt yourself more and may not be left to do anything,” she was told.

Though well-meant, it stung the young Kohli. “That day I decided I’ll take up sport and prove myself.”

She turned to the only person who had showed faith in her athletic ability till then, the man she had met at the mall six months earlier, India’s para badminton coach, Gaurav Khanna. After hunting for his number for a few days, her family managed to get through to Khanna via social media. He currently oversees the training of all the Paralympic-bound players in Lucknow.

Things speeded up after that. She visited the para badminton academy in Lucknow the weekend after making contact with Khanna and soon shifted there. In her debut para badminton nationals in 2019, she won three gold medals: women’s singles, women’s doubles and girls’ U-19 singles.

Later that year, right after the BWF World Championships in Basel in August 2019, Kohli suffered another setback. She was diagnosed with bone marrow edema in her left tibia. Perilously close to a stress fracture, she was advised bed rest for three months.

“I had to change my game completely after that,” says Kohli. “Once I could start training, I could only do standing strokes and couldn’t play for more than 10 minutes at one go.” The injury, from which she still hasn’t completely recovered yet, made her sharpen her skills and add a few deceptive strokes to her arsenal. “If it wasn’t for the injury I would have never got the time to develop these skills,” she says.

During the covid-19 lockdown last year, with all indoor facilities shut, the para shuttlers, who were in camp in Lucknow at the time, had to use their ingenuity in training. They made an outdoor court in the garden and practiced even when it was brutally hot or annoyingly windy.

“At times it would have rained and the ground would be muddy,” says Kohli. “But having played in those conditions, my strokes have become much better. Now it doesn’t take me long to adapt to the drift in the indoor hall. It has developed me into a new, improved player.”

Kohli returned to competitive para badminton after more than a year at the 3rd Dubai Para Badminton International 2021, which concluded on April 4. Despite playing singles for the first time in more than year and a half, she won a silver medal. She also bagged bronze medals in women’s doubles (with Parmar) and mixed doubles (with Pramod Bhagat).

“I was a bit nervous during my singles matches in the group stage, because I had to work the whole court by myself after a very long time,” she says. “Also I had entered three events, which meant I was playing three matches every day with very little time to recover. I was getting tired. But I did end up topping my group in singles.”

She defeated the second seed, Beatriz Monteiro, in straight games (21-18, 21-15) to enter the final. Though she lost 18-21, 18-21 to top seed Megan Hollander, winning three medals in all the three events she had entered was the best possible start for her in a Paralympic year.

Kohli is also managing the leg injury for now but knows that bone injuries take notoriously long to heal and can flare up any moment. “If I don’t play, I’m fine,” she adds matter-of-factly. The positive is, for now she’s playing and playing well.

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Written by Andrew Benedict

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