Once told she was ‘too thin’ to play badminton, Anupama Upadhyaya went on to become Junior World No.1

Indian badminton player Anupama Upadhyaya gets candid about her journey, how she maintains her physical and mental health, and her goals.
Anupama Upadhyaya badminton player
Anupama Upadhyaya smashes stereotypes, one shuttle at a time! Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Radhika Bhirani Updated: 21 Mar 2024, 10:12 pm IST
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Anupama Upadhyaya was born with the silver spoon of sports genes. Her father is a former cricketer who always wanted his children to pursue a sport. Anupama started swimming. She enjoyed it and hoped that she would make a career out of it. But a coach told her that she neither had the height nor the built to be a professional swimmer. When she switched to badminton at the age of 9, yet another man told her she was “too thin” to play the racket sport. But here was a girl who wasn’t going to let naysayers decide the course of her life. For Anupama, these instances served as motivation to prove that “I can do it!”

The young and rising 19-year-old shuttler is a former Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Junior Number 1 player. She also clinched the Indian National Badminton Champion in 2023 in women’s singles, and represented India at the Asian Games 2023. She is ranked 87 among the senior players globally, according to BWF. Anupama’s eyes are now focussed on securing a spot in the World Top 50, and to play at the 2026 Commonwealth Games and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Happy that women are jumping, diving and serving just as swiftly on the court as men, she is optimistic about the scope of more young girls making it big in the sports world space globally.

In this Health Shots She Slays exclusive interview, Anupama Upadhyaya talks unfiltered about her journey, challenges, mental health, physical well-being and goals.

Excerpts from the interview with Anupama Upadhyaya

Q. You didn’t start your journey with badminton. Interestingly, you began with swimming. But when was the first time in your life where you felt sports is your calling?

Anupama Upadhyaya: My father used to play cricket. But I was never interested in cricket. I used to like swimming, and enjoyed playing in the water a lot. My father encouraged me because he would say that swimming is a life-saving skill. I was around six years old when I started swimming, and I did it for two years. But my coach said, ‘She doesn’t have good height or built for swimming’. Then my father said, ‘Okay, let’s play badminton’. I started training for one hour daily. I was attracted to shuttlecocks and I used to see my senior players wearing good skirts and t-shirts. So I was very excited about wearing those skirts, playing like them and hitting the shuttle.

After a year, I was shifted to the two-hour training. That time, my senior head coach told my father, ‘She can be a national champion, an Olympic champion…’. I also used to get motivated whenever he and my father would say, ‘You’re playing good, you have good physical strength’.

Anupama Upadhyaya father
For Anupama, her father Naveen Upadhyaya, is her constant source of motivation. Image courtesy: Anupama Upadhyaya

Q. Sports has not traditionally been seen as a women’s arena. But over the past few years, so many wonderful women have broken that notion with their success nationally and internationally. What are some of the personal and professional challenges you faced while building your game and name?

Anupama Upadhyaya: Some people used to tell my dad, ‘She’s very thin, she cannot perform, she is not meant for the sport, you should make her study instead of making her play this sport, she might get more thin or get some physical problems’. But slowly, I built myself up. Earlier, I was a pure vegerian. I didn’t even like eggs. But I started eating eggs, and shifted to non-vegetarian food as diet is important. I also began going to the gym to work on my strength. Suddenly, when I became the under-13 national champion in singles, everyone came and congratulated me. Even the person who told my dad that she shouldn’t play this game, said, ‘It was my mistake that I said all of this’. But such comments also challenge and make me feel that ‘I have to show him or her that I can do this’.

At the end of the day, you just have to tell yourself that whether I am thin or fat, I can do this. It’s all about believing in yourself!

Q. So even while gaining that muscle strength, Anupama, were you skeptical about weight gain? I’m sure that as a sportsperson, your weight and your muscle gain was being taken care of professionally. But did you ever walk that thin line of doubt that you may just put on more weight than required?

Anupama Upadhyaya: Actually I got a gene testing, which showed that I don’t have a body structure for too much weight gain. So even if I eat pastries or chocolates sometimes, or eat more, I have a good metabolism and I don’t gain weight. I was happy I could eat what I wanted after every few days!

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Q. Let’s talk a bit about your diet and fitness. What are some daily wellness habits that you follow to keep your health in check?

Anupama Upadhyaya: The first thing is good nutrition. Sometimes my session starts at 5 a.m. So, I wake up early and I have dry fruits, followed by fruits like apples and bananas. Then I have a homemade dry fruit laddoo that has lots of desi ghee. It’s a good protein laddoo that keeps me full. I also ensure that I drink a lot of water – at least 5-6 litre a day. Some hours after finishing my training session, I have a protein shake, followed by a heavy breakfast so that I can sleep and recover well for my next session. Good food and good sleep are important for good performance. Stretching after every session is also beneficial, or one can get soreness in the leg or maybe cramps as well.

Q. Anupama, as a women’s health platform, we talk a lot about menstrual health. When it comes to sportswomen, dealing with periods can become complicated. After all, you cannot always match the dates to your matches! How do you manage the pain or discomfort?

Anupama Upadhyaya: My nutritionist has told me to have dates every day, and says that may make me get less stomach cramps. But I still get a stiff back or stiffness in my legs for the first two days of my periods. But I have adapted to it because there’s no other option. Some people take period pain medicines, but I don’t take them because I prefer to go natural. Otherwise, you tend to get addicted to those medicines and it’s not good for your health. I find it better to eat a natural fruit or drink some coffee or tea that helps to manage the cramps. I also do some training and warm-up myself and then I don’t feel those cramps!

Q. Now that you’ve spoken about food and fitness, let’s get to mental health. Mental health plays a huge role in supporting a sportsperson throughout the career. The taste of success is of course sweeter, but the taste of failure also teaches a lot. So how have you navigated the highs and lows of your career?

Anupama Upadhyaya: Nobody likes losing. So whenever I used to lose, I never used to see those matches. One day, my coach (renowned badminton coach DK Sen) and my dad told me, ‘You always watch your winning matches. It’s great that they motivate you, but it is important that you see the matches you have lost too. That’s because in that match only, you will get to know your weakness and your opponent’s strength. So now, I have started watching my losing matches as well.

My father has always motivated me, even though I have lost some matches very badly. I have had scores like 21-5. But he would say, ‘It’s okay, it’s a long journey and it’s not going to end up with this one tournament’. I was able to build that self confidence that even if I lose, I know I will come back and come back stronger!

Q. What about your mother? Tell us something about her influence in your life.

Anupama Upadhyaya: When I didn’t used to play badminton, she used to be a working woman. After I started playing badminton professionally, she left her job and began focussing on my career. She took complete care of my food because nutrition is a very important part of a sportsperson’s life. My mother is a vegetarian, but she learned all the chicken, mutton recipes for me. She makes the best mutton, and her support has really helped me. She is happy that she has invested in me and that I have become a good player and a strong woman.

Watch Anupama Upadhyaya’s Health Shots She Slays interview here

Q. When you became the World Junior No 1, what were some of the immediate pressures that you felt mentally? Also, because the transition from junior to the senior league can be tricky, right?

Anupama Upadhyaya: I believe one of the best and strongest things about me is that I don’t take pressure. My psychologist says, ‘I have seen a lot of players who feel the pressure when there is a lot of crowd, or when they are playing in a certain country with a native player as their opponent’. But I don’t get under pressure… whether it’s a senior player or junior player. Even if I play against Sindhu didi (PV Sindhu), I won’t feel the pressure. I credit my parents for that. They have never put me under stress for studies or sports.

Q. What are some areas of improvement you think you need to focus on?

Anupama Upadhyaya: Strength (physical strength). When I see top players of other countries, like An Se-young (South Korea), they have got good strength and stamina to maintain court coverage as well as speed till the third set. That’s where I lack, so I have to work on my strength.

Q. As of now, what are your current goals?

Anupama Upadhyaya: My long-term goals are the Commonwealth Games 2026 and Los Angeles Olympics 2028. My short-term goals are to focus more on the international circuit, to bring my ranking to Top 50 and gain more experience. I have never played against 20 or 30 players. So I really want to play with them before some of them retire.

Q. Finally, this year’s International Women’s Day theme was ‘Invest in Women’. What are your thoughts on women empowerment?

Anupama Upadhyaya: I think we should let women do whatever they want to do. Whether it is playing a sport or becoming a content creator, let them do whatever they want to do freely. Let them enjoy their life.

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About the Author

Radhika Bhirani is a journalist with close to 15 years of experience in the Indian media industry. After writing extensively on health, lifestyle and entertainment, she leads the English content team at Health Shots. She has a special interest in writing on mental health and wellness. ...Read More

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