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Friday, July 12, 2024

Hyderabad to Paris: Super Six and their Olympian Dreams

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The city is proudly sending six of its talented athletes – PV Sindhu, Esha Singh, Nikhat Zareen, Sreeja Akula, and the Sathwik-Chirag duo–to the Paris Olympics this year. All eyes are on these six stars with Olympian dreams. How are they preparing and where do they stand? Does the city’s infrastructure support their ambitions? What did they sacrifice to get here? WOW! finds out more.

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Come July 26 and all roads will lead to Paris, when it hosts the mother of all sports extravaganzas, the XXXIII Summer Olympics, also known as Paris 2024, whose grand finale is slated for August 11. Ironically, the French capital last hosted the Games, its second, exactly 100 years back in 1924! Hyderabad has a special place in the Olympics, thanks to the winners the city has been producing. Did you know Hyderabad produced the highest number of Olympian footballers in India? This year, however, Hyderabad is sending six promising players in sports ranging from table tennis to badminton to shooting, bringing diversity to representation.

Although, India is fielding a strong contingent across disciplines, for those from Telangana State and Andhra Pradesh, all eyes will be on the performances of six sportspersons from the two states. Shuttler P.V. Sindhu, the badminton men’s doubles combination of Satwiksairaj and Chirag Shetty, pugilist Nikhat Zareen, paddler Sreeja Akula and shooter Esha Singh are all slated to represent India at Paris 2024. An interesting feature of the Paris-bound six is the domination of women contenders. With just a month left to strut their talent and make it to sports folklore, it is time to take stock of their potential. We talk to a former sports journalist from Hyderabad, P Sreedhar about what he thinks are the chances for our athletes. 

PV Sindhu, Badminton: Although not in the best form, hopes will be high on Sindhu, who presently stands at a distant 11 in world badminton rankings. She is blessed with the resilience to regain the magic touch of a year ago and corner glory.

Esha Singh: Shooting, women’s 10m air pistol: Esha Singh’s prospects may be low but with her recent exploits, she can spring a surprise or two. Ironically, she is already in the record books as the only athlete at the Paris Olympics to be participating in more than one individual event – women’s 10m air pistol and 25m pistol.

Satwiksairaj and Chirag Shetty, Badminton doubles: This lethal combination is worthy of a podium finish as they sit atop the BWF world rankings. However, having been quite erratic of late, the two need to pull up their socks to make this a memorable outing.

Nikhat Zareen, Boxing, women’s 50 kg: She is the toast of not just Telangana but the entire nation, nay, boxing world. By all accounts, she has the best potential to return with a medal. If the two-time reigning world champion punches her way to the gold, which is quite possible, she will become the first Indian female athlete to win an Olympic gold.

Sreeja Akula, Table Tennis: There is no doubt that Sreeja will be the surprise in the Indian pack, both in team and individual events. Making her Olympic debut may perhaps unnerve her, but the prodigiously gifted youngster is adept at pulling off stunning comebacks from near-losing positions, including against her more popular opponents.

SHARP SHOOTER:

ESHA SINGH

This teenager who started her career when she was nine is making her Olympics debut this year and all eyes are on Esha

SPORTING BIO

Esha Singh is the youngest Arjuna awardee in shooting and the youngest National Champion at 13 years. The youngest junior world cup medallist 2019 – 2022, she is also world champion in 25 mtrs and 10 mtrs. She has had the highest medal tally for an Indian female shooter at the Asian Games in Hangzhou 2023. She is currently world number 04.

HER ACCOMPLISHMENTS

– World Champion in 70m air pistol mixed team

– National champion and record holder for the youngest shooter in the 62nd National Shooting Championship 2018 at the age of 13

– 2nd rank in Olympic trials 7 & 2 held in Delhi

– Won four Medals at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. (1 Gold 3 Silver)

– Arjuna awardee in 2023

“I play for passion, not medals or audience”

– Esha Singh

Esha Singh, the 19-year-old shooting prodigy from Hyderabad, is gearing up for the biggest event of her career: the Paris Olympics. With a decade of training under her belt, Esha’s journey to the Olympics has been marked by rigorous preparation, countless sacrifices and unwavering dedication.

30 DAYS BEFORE PARIS

In the final 30 days leading up to her departure for Paris, Esha’s training regime intensifies under the guidance of her personal coach, Ronak Pandit. Her days start at 7 am, heading straight to the shooting range in Secunderabad where she spends a minimum of seven hours honing her skills in both 10 mtrs and 25 mtrs events. Despite the demanding schedule, Esha doesn’t let the pressure get to her. “I’ve never trained specifically for the Olympics before, so this is all about fine-tuning what I’ve learned over the past ten years,” she explains. Evenings are reserved for workouts, often stretching until 8 pm, followed by a well-deserved rest.

SACRIFICES AND PASSION

Esha’s journey hasn’t been without its sacrifices. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve missed out on home-cooked meals, travel and hanging out with friends,” she admits. But her passion for shooting keeps her going.

A DAY IN ESHA’S LIFE

Esha’s days are meticulously planned. After her morning training session at the range, she breaks for lunch before continuing her practise. Her evenings are dedicated to fitness, including Pilates and gym sessions at GNX Fitness, ensuring her core and upper body are in peak condition. Balancing her academic life was a challenge, but she managed to finish school (Reqelford International School) and college education, including a BBA from Malla Reddy College, while pursuing her passion. “Studying helped me distract from the game and prevented burnout,” she shares.

FUTURE ASPIRATIONS AND HYDERABAD’S ROLE

Looking ahead, Esha remains humble and grounded. “Whatever comes my way, I will embrace it. I do this for pure passion of the sport, not for an audience or a medal,” she states. She also acknowledges the highs and lows she has faced, emphasizing the importance of resilience. “You’re not a robot, so you don’t always win. My parents taught me to play for myself and not take too much pressure.” She says that the love and support from her parents, mom Latha Naidu and dad Sachin, both entrepreneurs, is what keeps her going. Despite her achievements, Esha believes that Hyderabad still has room for improvement in terms of sports infrastructure. “There were no academies for beginners when I started. Now, we have Gun for Glory in Gachibowli and Trimulgherry, thanks to Gagan Narang’s initiative,” she notes.

QUICK TAKE

Two things you had to give up to get here: Dressing up and video games

Two things that you had to start doing to get here: Be high profile and be visible to inspire others

First thing you want to do after coming home from the Olympics: Go around zipping in VW car with my friends and family

BREAK OUT ATHLETE:

SREEJA AKULA

Her winning spree in the last six months of this year makes Sreeja a hot bet for the big wins in Olympics this year

SPORTING BIO

Sreeja Akula is a women’s singles & doubles (table tennis) athlete. The 25-year-old’s World Ranking is #38* (Women’s singles) and World Ranking #27* (Women’s Doubles). Born in Hyderabad, Sreeja embarked on her table tennis journey in Telangana. Under the mentorship of coach Somnath Ghosh in his academy in Hyderabad, she has consistently done well at the national and international level. With an India #1 ranking and the highest ranked Indian women’s singles player as per WTT rankings is a testament to her rising prowess.

2022 was her breakout year, where she clinched the Gold (Mixed Doubles) at the Commonwealth Games, Birmingham, 2022. Sreeja also claimed the Senior National champion in 2022 in women’s singles, successfully defending the title she first won in 2021.

2024 was another notable year as she was the first Indian women table tennis player to win international tournaments courtesy, her victories at the WTT Feeder, Corpus Christi & WTT Feeder, Beirut II. She is also part of the historic India women’s team to have qualified for the first time to the Olympics, where she will compete in both team and individual events. She is an Arjuna Awardee (2022).

“Every tournament is like the Olympics for me”

– Sreeja Akula

Yoga and meditation help her stay stoic in the sport regardless of a victory or loss

SPORTING BIO

Even as we hype up the Olympics, Sreeja is keeping her head firmly on her shoulders as she plays a few global tournaments before heading to Paris for the Olympics 2024. As she connects with WOW! Hyderabad in an exclusive interview over a call, she says, “I am not even thinking of the Olympics right now, I just wrapped up tournaments in Tunisia and Nigeria and am training in Germany. I want to stay strong, fit and injury-free and am doing the necessary training to be in my best form.” Meanwhile, she is hoping that the Olympic Federation will be able to get her coach Somanath Ghosh, under who she has been training for over 10 years now, for her big day in the global sports arena. “He’s my pillar of strength and having him on the day of the game will immensely help me keep calm and play my game.

KEEP CALM AND PLAY ON

Sreeja also takes special psychological training under Gayatri who helps her focus on her larger goal – of giving her best on the court. “I have been doing yoga and meditation for at least 10 years now and that has taught me to not get scared of anything. Everyone keeps asking me about the Olympic medal. For me, every game is like an Olympic match. Every win is important. I take this also seriously, but not any different from any other game I play.” she says in a philosophical tone. “The Olympics is beautiful, but winning or losing is not the end of the world. I hope to stay the same regardless of my wins and losses,” she says.

HYDERABAD AS A PLAYGROUND

She says that while Hyderabad is great for badminton with academies like the Pullela Gopichand Academy, table tennis still lacks the infrastructure. “I practice in a tiny space in a mall, whereas other cities have huge courts to practice. First, we need better play areas and then we can nurture more players.” However, she is grateful that corporates such as Raheja and Ctrl S are supporting players like her and funding their international travel and stay which can be expensive for middle-class sportspersons. “Tamil Nadu players Saty and Sharath are lucky that their state spends Rs 25 lakh on them to encourage them to win on international platforms. I have been struggling to get the government to fund my expenses,” she says. The only ray of hope is the employment opportunities sportspersons get in India which gives them job security amidst uncertain times. Sreeja works as a bank manager in RBI Hyderabad when she is not busy with table tennis.

QUICK TAKE

Two things you had to sacrifice to get here: Staying away from family for long durations. An athlete’s life can feel lonely as we are always on the move for training, therapy or tournaments. Although my coach travels with me, I miss my parents Praveen Kumar and Sai Sudha. The other is hanging out with my friends, watching movies and café hopping.

Two things that you had to start doing to get here: Give press interviews and be active on social media. First thing you want to do after coming home from the Olympics: Eat chicken curry made by my granny Kalavathi

THE GOLDEN GIRL:

PV SINDHU

WOW! wonders if the glorious career of the badminton champ, a two-time Olympian will culminate in a final Olympic hurrah

SPORTING BIO

As PV Sindhu prepares for what might be her final Olympic Games, the badminton star’s illustrious career shines as a beacon of excellence. Sindhu’s journey to the pinnacle of badminton has been nothing short of remarkable. From an early age, her talent was evident, and under the guidance of coach Pullela Gopichand, she honed her skills to become one of India’s most celebrated athletes. The lanky sporting superstar first made international headlines in 2013 when she won a bronze medal at the World Championships, becoming the first Indian woman to achieve this feat. This marked the beginning of her ascent in the world badminton rankings. In 2016, Sindhu etched her name in the annals of Indian sports history by clinching a silver medal at the Rio Olympics, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver in badminton.

THE SPORTS A-LISTER

The years that followed saw Sindhu solidify her status as a top-tier player. She continued to perform admirably at various international tournaments, consistently reaching the finals and semi-finals. In 2019, Sindhu became the first Indian to win gold at the World Championships, a testament to her relentless pursuit of excellence. Her aggressive playing style, powerful smashes, and remarkable agility have been pivotal to her success. Despite her impressive resume, Sindhu faced challenges, including injuries and periods of inconsistent form. However, her resilience and determination have always seen her bounce back stronger. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics, held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, added another feather to her cap as she secured a bronze medal, making her the first Indian woman to win two Olympic medals.

LAST AND FINAL CALL

As she eyes the Paris 2024 Olympics, speculation is rife that this could be her final appearance at the tournament. At 28, Sindhu is at a stage where athletes often contemplate the next phase of their careers. Despite being plagued by injuries and poor form of late, it is clear that she still possesses the drive to compete at the highest level. Winning another Olympic medal would not only cement her legacy but also inspire a new generation of Indian badminton players. Can Sindhu win again for the country? Given her track record, it would be unwise to bet against her. Her experience, combined with her unwavering determination, makes her a formidable contender. While the competition will be stiff, Sindhu’s ability to rise to the occasion in major tournaments could see her scripting another historic chapter in her storied career. As the Paris Olympics approach, the hopes and prayers of a billion Indians will be with PV Sindhu, wishing for one more triumphant performance.

SHUTTLING THEIR WAY TO GLORY:

SATWIK-CHIRAG

This badminton duo has recorded consistent success and sports pundits believe they will be invincible at the Paris Olympics

SPORTING BIO

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have rapidly ascended to the pinnacle of badminton, achieving feats matched by few in Indian sports. Currently ranked world number 1 in men’s doubles, they were honored with the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award earlier this year.

Satwik’s father, a state-level player is his inspiration. He joined the Pullela Gopichand Academy in 2014, focusing on doubles. He set a Guinness World Record for the fastest smash at 565 km/h, surpassing the previous record of 493 km/h. Chirag Shetty hails from Malad, Mumbai, he began training at Uday Pawar Badminton Academy before moving to the Gopichand Academy. Initially paired with Arjun M.R., he later teamed up with Satwik under coach Tan Kim Her’s guidance, creating a formidable duo. Their combined skills and dedication have made them a force to reckon with in international badminton.

Satwik-Chirag Shetty are an Indian men’s doubles badminton pair who have won many awards together, including:

– 2023 Asian Games: Won India’s first badminton gold medal

– 2023 Indonesia Open: Became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win the BWF World Super 1000 title

– 2023 Korea Open: Defeated Indonesian pair Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto

– 2023 Swiss Open: Won their first title as a pair, beating the Chinese pair of Ren Xiangyu and Tan Qiang in the final

PACKING A PUNCH:

NIKHAT ZAREEN

The boxer is one of India’s most promising Olympic aspirants as she has been on a winning spree in the last few months

SPORTING BIO

From winning the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham to winning the Women’s World Championships in 2022, the sky is the limit for this young boxer who was awarded the Arjuna award last year. Nikhat is only the fifth-Indian woman to win a gold at the World Boxing Championships.

Her love affair with boxing began when her father took her to the sporting ground in Nizamabad and on seeing an all-male boxing ring was told that the domain was a man’s preserve. Vowing to prove everyone wrong, she entered the ring with determination and today is known as the golden girl of Indian boxing.

After much struggle to continue to play the game and get sponsorships to fund the expenses, today she is one of the country’s biggest sporting stars. With so much buzz around her, how does the young athlete keep herself grounded? In an interview with WOW Hyderabad, Nikhat had said, “I am hungry for success in the Olympics. I want to win the gold. To do that I just try to keep my head down and focus on my everyday work.” she says. Her advice to young girls is simple. “Believe in yourself.”

A promising table tennis champion lost opportunities as the government doesn’t have a sports policy in place

Dreams nipped in the bud

S. Fidel R. Snehit, the 19-year-old table tennis champion from Hyderabad, has competed in 17 international tournaments, winning numerous medals and earning acclaim as the city’s most promising TT athlete. Despite his remarkable achievements, Snehit is heartbroken after narrowly missing out on Olympic qualification.

His father, Ramu Suravajjula, a journalist with a Hyderabad media house, blames the lack of support from the former BRS government. “The Telangana government doesn’t have a sports policy. To get selected, players must compete in national and international tournaments to earn points. States like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spend Rs 25 lakh per player per year to support their athletes. We’re just regular middle-class parents–we had to sell our three-acre farm to support his game.”

Ramu continues, his tone reflecting both pride and disappointment, “Snehit won a bronze in the prestigious BRICS game this June. Any other state would have rewarded him with Rs 10 lakh to pursue more tournaments, but here, there’s no support. Although he has spent all his formative years in Telangana and brought laurels to the state, the government didn’t help him, citing his birthplace in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh. There’s caste and regional politics, besides a lot of nepotism.”

Despite his frustration, Ramu remains hopeful. “Snehit missed the bus this time, but he’s going to make it big at the next Olympics,” he asserts. Cutting across such political lines, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) has stepped in to sponsor Snehit, enabling him to travel and earn more points. OGQ, a program by the Foundation for Promotion of Sports and Games aims to help Indian athletes win Olympic gold medals. Established by sporting legends like Prakash Padukone, Geet Sethi and Niraj Bajaj, OGQ provides world-class training facilities to athletes preparing for the Olympics.

Ramu’s unwavering belief in his son’s potential is a testament to the sacrifices made by many parents to support their children’s dreams, even in the face of systemic obstacles.

DID YOU KNOW? The Paris Olympics 2024 debuts a wide-ranging vegetarian menu, tailored to suit Indian athletes and advocates for ‘leaf over beef’. Prioritizing dining options at the Games Village, the initiative strives to present a distinct culinary journey, highlighting a shift away from conventional meat-focused cuisine.

Cricket and football have ample coaching centres, but offbeat games suffer from lack of infrastructure and therefore participation from athletes

Is Hyderabad’s infrastructure equipped to nurture Olympians?

Hyderabad has emerged as a powerhouse for nurturing Olympians, thanks to its evolving sports infrastructure and support systems.

KEY FACILITIES:

Gachibowli Stadium: A multi-purpose venue for national and international events, offering top-tier track and field facilities.

Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy: Producing champions like PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal with comprehensive training programs and state-of-the-art equipment.

Telangana State Sports School: Excellent facilities and coaching for shooting enthusiasts, nurturing talents like Esha Singh.

Boxing Clubs and Academies: Supporting athletes like Nikhat Zareen in their quest for Olympic glory.

SUPPORT SYSTEMS:

Hyderabad’s infrastructure includes a network of fitness centres, physiotherapy clinics and sports science institutes, ensuring holistic athlete training. Government initiatives and private investments continually enhance these facilities, fostering an environment conducive to producing world- class athletes.

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