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“Everyone lives a normal life. But if you want to live a special life, you’ve also got to do something special.” Such rich and deep takes on life from Indian paddler Bhavina Patel, who has scripted history at the Tokyo Paralympics, come from the tough physical and emotional upheavals that she has waded through since being diagnosed with polio when she was 12 months old.
Bhavina has notched up India’s first silver medal in women’s singles class 4 table tennis event.
In a heartfelt conversation with Health Shots, she opens up about her struggles, sacrifices, love for food, need for infrastructural and emotional support for people with disability, and the powers that make women superwomen!
For Bhavina, the silver medal came with a slight disappointment of not being able to win the gold against world number one Chinese opponent Ying Zhou in the finals. But the joy of registering her name in the pages of history – fulfilling one “junoon” of her life – comes with a sense of satisfaction.
“Ever since I started playing, I have always had the dream of winning a gold medal at the Paralympics. This time I missed the gold medal, and fell a little short of giving my 100 percent, but I have made history which I believe will motivate a lot of (para) players. It will also spread awareness about Paralympics, and more players will feel enthusiastic about giving a shot to a sport of their choice,” says the 34-year-old in an interview from Tokyo.
She recounts how her family members tell her that just a day or two before she caught fever, the first sign of polio, Bhavina was crawling around at a relative’s house freely. “I had perhaps just started walking,” she says while talking about the moment that changed the course of her and her family’s life forever.
“My parents never accepted defeat. They went from pillar to post, from hospitals to temples and wherever else they saw a ray of hope for their daughter to get better,” she adds.
Coming from a small village meant she didn’t just have to fight her own disability, but also an environment where life isn’t easy for women as it is.
“It was always like, ‘If it’s a girl, she can’t do this and that’. Or that she is dependent on others. I had to listen to a lot of taunts,” she recounts. But that is what egged her on to spread her wings in life on her own, instead of spreading out her hands in front of anyone else for help.
“I wanted to make myself self-sustainable and independent. I wanted to do something for the nation, and something so that everyone knows me by my name. I always had the ‘junoon’ to have my name in the pages of history.
“This time I got the chance. and I tried to make the best of the opportunity,” says Bhavina, who plays from a wheelchair.
Having a strong support system, first from her parents, and later from her friend-turned-husband Nikunj Patel, peers and coaches, has been a win-win for Bhavina.
“After marriage, staying at your in-laws’ place, being a housewife, a player, an employee, and to handle all these roles at the same time is very tough. But my family has supported me and given me so much love. My husband has dedicated his life to standing by me. He always tries to keep me happy and motivated. He is like my Guru, and my parents are my God. Together, they have been my backbone,” Bhavina says.
It started around 2004-2005. Born to a middle-class family in a village in Gujarat, she moved to Ahmedabad after her schooling to pursue an Industrial Training Institute course (ITI) at the Blind People’s Association.
“There, I saw some friends who were playing TT. After that, I started playing it for fun too. But I realised that TT got really interesting for me. I started feeling very confident in the game. My willpower became solid, and a lot of changes started coming into my life. Gradually, I started going to tournaments. I performed well and won many medals. And alongside, my goals started increasing.
An inherent joi de vivre gets reflected even as she gets talking about everything that has manifested into the silver medal at the Paralympics.
“You always get the fruit of your hard work. Without struggle and sacrifices, nothing is possible if you want to make it big in life. Yes, everyone lives a normal life. But if you want to live a special life, you have also got to do something special. If you want to do something for your nation, you want to give your complete dedication to something, you want to put your whole life to something, you want to leave what you like for it… (it takes a lot of sacrifice),” says the die-hard Sachin Tendulkar fan.
One part of sacrifice for her is not eating to her heart’s content, despite being a foodie.
“I haven’t eaten food properly for the past one and a half years. I have avoided whatever I like eating,” she says.
Ask her what she loves to eat, and pat comes the reply, “I love spicy food. I love eating golgappas but I haven’t touched or seen it for so long. I love chilli, especially fried mirchi! But I haven’t touched that either. I am a huge ‘chatori’… Frankly, I love eating food, but main jitna khaane se pyaar karti hun, usse kahi zyada main apne game ko pyaar karti hun. And I can leave everything for it.”
Her diet involves eating measured meals (150 ml each of dal and rice), limited fruits (banana, papaya and pineapple) and nuts (walnuts and unsalted pistachios). Since she is allergic to eggs, Bhavina consumes her share of protein from protein shakes. It makes her taste buds sad, but she does it anyway for the benefit of her performance, strength and game.
As for physio, it pains, but as any true sportsperson would vouch for – there’s no gain without pain. She is given such strengthening exercises which, she says, charge up some of those parts of her body where she has hardly felt any sensation for long.
“It’s like they are getting a new life,” she says, and adds, “For me, there’s this passion to do better than yesterday. I believe that if you make a goal, you should put your strength into it. Today, the taste of my medal seems sweeter because of my struggles and sacrifice. Maybe if I had not worked so hard for it, it wouldn’t have tasted that sweet. It feels more valuable.”
Now she wants a taste of golgappas! “India jaane ke baad toh main toot padungi. I will eat to my heart’s content for a week,” she quips.
As much as Bhavina comes across as a strong and fun-loving person, she also admits having a vulnerable emotional side.
“I have always been an emotional person. I am very touchy. But I am an equally strong person when it comes to my mental power. If I put my mind to something, I don’t leave it unfinished,” reveals the sportswoman, who has her own way to battle the anxiety and mental health hassles that come with each day, and each game.
“My morning routine involves waking up and doing yoga and meditation. I draw a lot of blessings, energy, positivity and motivation out of it, and it is because of this that I keep calm in every game. Meditation and yoga gives me a lot of inspiration.”
With her own story, Bhavina hopes to inspire some change for the benefit of people with disabilities as well as for para players.
While she stresses on the need for awareness about Paralympics, she also urges the government to launch schemes and provisions to lend financial support to deserving and upcoming players who are forced to leave a sport because they can’t afford it.
Bhavina also hopes that in India, travel, transport, offices, restaurants, and many other places be made disability-friendly.