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Monday, September 20, 2021

Silver pocketed, music and merriment begin for fun-loving Bhavina Patel

The silver medal – a testimony to her unexpected, but not undeserved, achievement – made Bhavina Patel the first-ever Indian to have medalled at the Olympics or Paralympics in table tennis.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: August 30, 2021 2:48:57 pm
Bhavina Patel lost to World No.1 Chinese stalwart Zhou Ying 7-11, 7-11, 6-11 in the final. (Twitter/Tokyo2020hi)

“YEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!”

The single word, often prolonged, was what Bhavina Patel would shout with a raised and right fist to celebrate a point. A set. A match.

A simple celebration by most standards, it broke the cacophony of ‘Cho-lay’ being shouted at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium – the venue for the table tennis event at the Tokyo Paralympics.

‘Cho-lay,’ not to be confused with the Indian dish, is a phrase often shouted by players after winning a point. It finds its roots in China – a country that has dominated the sport to such an extent that foreign players (even Indians) have started using it. Essentially, cho-lay means ‘good, one more.’ But Patel’s own war-cry was a symbol of her unique identity. An identity, that on Sunday, found a permanent place in the sport’s history.

As three Chinese flags were raised during the medal ceremony for the Class 4 (wheelchair) women’s singles event, there was an Indian flag too. The silver medal belonged to Patel – a testimony to her unexpected, but not undeserved, achievement. It made her the first ever Indian (able-bodied or impaired) to have medalled at the Olympics or Paralympics in TT. It was also the first medal for India at this edition of the Paralympics.

The World No 12 was never expected to get this far in her first ever appearance at the Games. Based on her ranking itself she wasn’t expected to even get out of the group stage. But she beat World No 9 Megan Shackleton of Great Britain in the round robin. Then World No 8 Joyce De Oliveira of Brazil in the Round of 16, Serbian World No 2 and defending champion Borislava Peric-Rankovic in the quarterfinal, and finally 2016 Rio silver medallist and World No 3 Zhang Miao in the semi-final. In the summit clash she fell to World No 1 Ying Zhou – a legend in her own right who won her sixth Paralympic gold medal in the final.

“With this run she’s probably going to go up to the number six or seven spot,” says Pramod Gangrade, general secretary of the Para Table Tennis Promotion Association (PTTPA).

“The big goal now will be to keep at that spot and go higher. For that she has to continue going for tournaments regularly.”

READ | Bhavina’s journey to silver: Bus rides, dodging traffic on crutches

But that’s something Gangrade, a former para table tennis player himself (he was stricken with polio and has a disabled left leg) is confident Patel will anyway be targeting. He’s known the 34-year-old since 2010, and he’s seen how her demeanour changes when she enters a tournament.

“She’s been a very jovial, fun-loving friendly person, but when a tournament starts, she goes into a shell,” he explains.

“She will go to the stadium, play her match, head back to her room and rest. She’ll come out to have her food, and head back to the room. She’ll speak little to nothing to people, and she’s not really interested in roaming around and sight-seeing. She’s there to play. She wants nothing to distract her. The same thing happened in Tokyo.”

Now that the medal has been secured though, Gangrade is reminded of what happened the last time he had seen her win a title – at the nationals in March.

“She was all quiet when the tournament was on. After she won the final and the prize distribution was over, she came to me and said to play some music on the loudspeakers so that the players could dance,” he says.

“It was quite an endearing sight – these players in their wheelchairs dancing to Daler Mehndi and Mika Singh songs. This is what Bhavina is like when a tournament is over, very fun-loving.”

There will be celebrations no doubt when she comes back to India as well. But there is a hope that the government officials et al who will hold felicitation programs will take the trouble to consider the discomfort associated with her condition that puts her in the wheelchair.

Diagnosed with poliomyelitis when she was a year old, Patel has been playing the sport for half her life. It’s a much-needed release and method of exercise for her, but it does take its toll.

“These players suffer from stiff back issues very quickly. If they sit for more than two 2 hours in the wheelchair at a stretch it becomes very stiff and painful. The only way to counter it is to lie down for a while at intervals,” Gangrade says.

“No matter how much fitness work you do, this problem persists. But I’m sure she’ll smile through everything and sit through all the functions even if it goes on for eight hours. These players aren’t starved for facilities, they long for recognition.”

The celebration will only last for a month-and-a-half though, as her husband Nikul explains.

The former U19 Gujarat cricketer-turned businessman, who has helped Patel chart-out a schedule, asserts that there are big events coming up that they have to focus on.

“We will celebrate this medal, but there is still more to be achieved. The World Championships are coming up, then we’ll have the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. We will not stop here,” he says.

Once the dust of Paralympic festivities settles, or perhaps even before they do, the fun-loving, dancing Patel will go back into her shell. That steely focus will be back – buoyed by her most recent conquest. Again, she won’t speak much. Except for those trademark celebratory shrieks at the table.

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