Carolina Marin is limbering down next to the practice courts after an early morning training session. It’s a long, meticulous stretching routine. Hyderbad Hunters’ coach Fernando Rivas, better known as the man who plotted Marin’s conquering of the world at the Olympics, has been engaging Sameer Verma, the Hunters’ second men’s singles player, in the acutest of net dribbles. It’s eyeball-to-eyeball close, a contest that gets intense as the shuttle pops up kissing the net both sides. It ends with guffaws, and now the coach needs a limber-down himself. He beckons A. Carrocas, Marin’s boyfriend, who’s travelling with her, to the court and gives him some detailed lessons on hitting drops. Marin joins in the tutoring as badminton’s brightest coach-and-ward combo deconstruct every movement of the action – shoulder, elbow, racquet’s striking zone – for their newest pupil.
Carrocas has learnt a skill that his girlfriend aces, Marin has mentally threadbared the kinesiology of her movements and coach has given the couple something to enthusiastically discuss – even if for just a few moments. It’s the Rivas way of doing things.
Rivas warmed up to Carrocas quite some time back: “He’s a nice guy so there’s no problem,” Rivas says later, though it’s his philosophy of many years to mould not just Carolina’s mind but also that of those around her.
From very early on in life when Marin started training with him, Rivas had made the Olympic champion’s family understand what their daughter was aiming for and how it was changing her.
“Like I had to make her understand what she was doing, I would speak to the family too about why she would react in certain ways to wins and losses and training sessions. What to do, what not,” he says. He was even more assertive on the touchy matter of “friends.”
“An athlete has to be very clear about the concept of friendships. Especially after the Olympics when so many people are trying to be your friends only because she’s won gold,” he says. Boyfriends (and the accompanying distractions) is an even more emotive matter in badminton – unlike the tennis entourages at Grand Slams – whether in India, China or even Spain. “It’s about setting red lines that no one can cross. You ultimately want the player to be comfortable, but there will always be a certain control over what to do, what not,” he says, of the balance he’s managed to strike for Marin and Carrocas.
Spain’s first ever badminton Olympic medal, came after quite a few tightropes. Even coach Rivas didn’t want any distractions. “I’ve had to make some painful choices along the way. Having a girlfriend just didn’t fit into my lifestyle when I was immersed in coaching in the early days. I wouldn’t allow nothing to stand in the way,” he recalls.
His partner delivered their first child in April this year – she’s a 9-month toddler now – and the time leading upto the Olympics was insanely chaotic for everyone involved. “My girl friend helped a lot and took care of the baby, but it was crazy handling things at home and at coaching because we don’t have family in Madrid,” he says.
He’s a stickler for 100 per cent commitment in training. “Even 99 per cent irritates me. I want 100 per cent. It’s something I don’t negotiate with,” he adds. It leads to the oldest athlete-coach argument. On loop. “I’ll say you are not training 100 pc, she’ll say Ofcourse I am. It keeps happening and making us angry alternately,” he laughs.
We know how India was throbbing on August 19, the day of the Olympics final. Cut to Spain where there are only 8000 registered badminton players in a population of 45 million. “But it was the second most viewed Olympic event after Spain vs USA basketball. Some 2.5 million tuned in, that’s nothing for India, but it’s massive for Spain,” he recalls.
They tried to approach it like any other match. On his part, he gulped down strong coffee. “Nothing but coffee. Somehow I felt very confident that morning, even calmer than when I’m here coaching PBL,” he says. Some days you just wake up feeling like that.
“I was worried when she led 19-16 and lost the set to Sindhu. But I told her certain words (he refuses to tell what, except it was in raw Spanish) which always work like magic. When she scored the last point, I had goosebumps,” he recalls, pointing to his hand.
It had meant the world and the heaven thrown in, to him. “People had laughed at me in 2008 when I had said we’d win a gold medal in badminton in 2016.” They laughed when he made the presentation, and assured that his programme was on track. After Carolina’s World Championship title victory in 2014 a few shut up. “Jealousy or something, doesn’t matter now. But that moment when she won, all the times we’d lost, we’d spent going over same thing over and over again, spent on computer (micro-analysing), everything popped up in that fraction of second.
“Everything was worth it,” he says, after a breathless narration. Starting with when Carolina was age 14, he had asked her about her goals and literally taught her how to dream high. This when people would say of him: “He is crazy. We are in Spain.” Not to face, but that motivated him even more.
“Actually we owe that medal to everyone who said those things. They made me work harder,” he says. There were others too less doubtful and more whole hearted in their support helping out, like Danish coaches – and brains like Tine Baun and her husband – as well as Rivas’ own teacher at the sports scientist’ institute Aurelio, who had coached Spain’s national volleyball women’s team. “It was about technical stuff, but he helped more in understanding the female athlete’s mind,” he recalls.
It’s not a “Spaniard” thing though, he stresses. “It’s Carolina specific. We understand each other’s body language on court. It’s intuitive now.” All the eating do’s-and-don’ts were worked out a while back, and ‘resting’ as an important part of training is still insisted upon. Though Marin’s coaching group have worked hard on making her independent on court: “We let her make her mistakes, ofcourse the big mistakes we step in, but in the long term, she needs to be able to think for herself,” he adds.
Rivas went through a uniquely painful emotion, post the big win. “It’s not easy to recover from a gold medal,” he declares. “The ups and downs are too emotionally draining in the lead up. You train long hours,” he says. It ended up in him wanting to spend all the time with his daughter and walking his dogs to relax. “For me, dogs are part of my family,” he says.
It was a scene straight out of Chak De! when Rivas landed at the Madrid airport after the medal. “I didn’t celebrate much, not the bit about meeting important dignitaries and politicians. I just walked straight through the press and told her to handle them. I was too tired to soak in all that. My Olympics had ended on August 19,” he smiles a tight smile.
A three week break where he tried to not think badminton (and miserably failed) later, he was thinking of what next, except Marin wouldn’t get one straight week of training in because of all the other cheery commitments. “But we’d anticipated it and planned for how to deal with celebrations also,” he laughs.
It meant she went into the season-ender at Dubai, minus any solid preparation and lost a handful of matches there. Even the world’s most successful coach is not spared the whataboutery. “Oh. There were people saying she’s not won a Super Series the whole year. So I patiently explain why,” he starts. So, Dubai was lack of match practice, and it should work out soon now that there’s no pain from niggles and the speed’s picking up.
It turned out that in the run-up of the Olympics everyone got talking about Thailand’s Intanon Ratchanok and how she’d won three SS titles and was favourite for gold. There’s a hint of annoyance when he completes the story: “Nobody knows what my plan for her whole year is. Our goal was gold at Rio,” he says stubbornly, adding, “I’m sure even Ratchanok will trade her three Super Series titles for Olympic gold.”
Rivas, though, won’t trade his dream for anything. “By the time I retire, I want Carolina to be the greatest badminton player. 2-3 Olympic titles,” he smiles, though he might be terribly serious about it. “Then there’s Super Series titles she’s never won before – China and Indonesia, and All England again, and a few more World Championships. That’s it.”
Rivas would want Marin to acquire the finesse of a Shixian Wang, and patience of someone else. “But she’s done quite OK with what she has,” he laughs.