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Pullela Gopichand: Champion maker

Pullela Gopichand, a galvanising taskmaster who coaches India's national badminton team, is all steel and soul

Nikita Puri 

India's Pusarla V Sindhu with coach Pullela Gopichand after she lost against Spain's Carolina Marin in women's Singles final at the 2016 Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil
India's Pusarla V Sindhu with coach Pullela Gopichand after she lost against Spain's Carolina Marin in women's Singles final at the 2016 Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

In Hyderabad, where a handful of hoardings and cloth banners welcome Rio Olympics silver medallist Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and coach Pullela Gopichand back to the city, 12-year-old Sreeya Chitoor sits nursing her ankle with an ice pack. "This is nothing," she says, gesturing to her ankle. "I'll be fine." Her eyes remain glued to the scenes playing out on the television: Gopichand and Sindhu being felicitated at a state function. "I like Sindhu, Srikanth (Kidambi) and Saina (Nehwal) a lot. I also want to go to the Olympics," she says.

Chitoor joined the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad's Gachibowli area only a few months ago. She travels from Secunderabad every day, a distance of 20 to 25 km one way, much like Sindhu had done before her family moved closer to the academy. While some choose to stay at the academy, many of the students commute considerable distances for three sessions of two hours each, every day.

For many here, 42-year-old Gopichand, or "Gopi Sir", is an organic portrait of unadulterated grit and determination. These are traits he inspires in his students, too. The only guru dakshina this Dronacharya of Indian badminton seeks, say his students, is complete dedication to the sport. This dedication traces itself to the days when Gopichand himself was a champion in the making.

As a boy of five who'd cross the road with his eyes shut for fun, Gopichand always liked games. On one of his shut-eyed jaunts, he crashed into a bicycle. But the incident never scared him; he continued to keep the game, albeit dangerous.

Gopichand initially favoured cricket, but after a sunstroke, his mother, Subbaravamma, and elder brother, Rajashekhar, steered him towards badminton when he was about 10. By the time he was 13, Gopichand was recovering from his first ligament injury and in a year found himself at the finals of the Andhra Pradesh State Junior Badminton ship in 1987, losing the title only to Rajashekhar.

His interest in badminton proved to be an expensive pursuit. As the story goes, in 1992, when a good quality racquet could cost Rs 20,000, his mother sold her jewellery to get him one. For years the family never ate a meal outside so that it could fund Gopichand's training.

The sacrifice bore results as Gopichand steadily steered his way to the top. But his life was so plagued with injuries that some in the family actually called him "Mr Casualty". In 1994, Gopichand was partnering with Vijay Raghavan at the national games in Pune when the two collided violently while reaching for the same shot. Soon after, Gopichand lay on a hospital bed with a career-threatening injury to his left knee; surgeons told him they weren't sure how well he'd recover.

Sitting on a wheelchair, Gopichand laboured on as he began to practise hitting the shuttle back and forth on the wall. "Everyone had written him off," says Sanjay Sharma, former national badminton coach and player.

Four surgeries and three years later, Gopichand came roaring back. He went on to win the All England Open Championship in 2001. Only Prakash Padukone had won the much-coveted honour for India before that, back in 1980.

"His is a story of sheer determination and will power," says Sharma who co-wrote Pullela Gopi Chand: The World Beneath His Feat (Rupa) with his daughter, Shachi, in 2011.

School for shuttlers
Established in 2008, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad came about with funding by entrepreneur Nimmagadda Prasad. Gopichand had also mortgaged his family home to build what he foresaw as a “world-class training centre.” There are over 18 coaches here, including some from Malaysia and Indonesia, besides in-house nutritionists, masseurs and physiotherapists. A second branch with nine courts called the SAI (Sports Authority of India)-Gopichand was inaugurated earlier this year. Additional branches are in Gwalior, Vadodara, Tanuka and Salem and a new one is set to open in Greater Noida.

The father-daughter duo is currently finishing a film script based on the authorised biography. A Telugu-Hindi biopic on Gopichand has also been recently announced by producer Abhishek Nama and national award-winning director Praveen Sattaru.

Two-time national champion and India's only woman shuttler in the 1996 Olympics, PVV Lakshmi, married Gopichand in 2002. She talks about how sometimes she feels that Gopichand is "wedded more to badminton than to me". In The World Beneath His Feat, Lakshmi details how their two children and even Gopichand's parents, who are involved with the running of the academy, see more of him there than at home. While the younger son, Vishnu, trains at the academy, their daughter, Gayatri, is already a U-13 champion.

"Gopi is very focused in what he does. In a way, he's very selfish about what he does, too," says Sharma. "He has short-term and long-term plans for his players. I haven't seen the focus and energy that Gopi exudes anywhere else." The champion-making man Gopichand has become, he adds, could not have happened without the strapping support-system his family provides.

A man of few words, Gopichand is known to have turned down a lucrative endorsement deal offered by a soft drink brand because he wasn't ready to back something he didn't believe in. His academy's cafeteria doesn't stock soda either and players are instead offered fresh fruit juices.

In the cafeteria where the amicable cook piles everyone's plates high with chicken "for protein", Gopichand often stops by to scrutinise plates of the younger lot. He goes around placing beets in everyone's plates and ensuring they all have a fair helping of sprouts, if that's on the menu for the day.

Stories abound of how he made Sindhu stay off her phone and kept her from eating the biryanis and ice-creams the 21-year-old is so fond of, but this is an example he set long ago. When he was training with S M Arif, before he moved to Padukone's academy in Bengaluru, he called Arif one late evening to ask for permission before he indulged in a delicacy.

"Gopi believes that food is one of the greatest addictions in life," says Amit Malik, a sports management consultant at the academy. In the two or three months before the team headed to Rio, Gopichand adopted the rigorous ketogenic diet, with butter in his black coffee for starters. "He knew that Srikanth and Sindhu wouldn't have many sparring partners to train with at Rio, so he wanted to ensure that he was fit for the task," says Malik.

He is known to turn up at the courts every day by 4 am for the first practice session and also watches videos of training sessions over and over again to better an athlete's game. It's always rewind-pause-and-play at the academy where on-court and off-court strategies are constantly emended in a quest for better results.

The phones at the academy haven't stopped ringing after Sindhu bagged silver, with callers from across the country wanting to know how to enroll their children here. Currently, there are about 150 students enrolled and over 400 are on the waiting list.

In the midst of the eight-court set up, there's a constant flow of shuttles as players and coaches give every session their best. Unmindful of their sweat-drenched jerseys after they've finished a game, young men and women spontaneously start doing push-ups. Among them is Tarun Kona who recently represented India in the 31st Brazil International Badminton Cup.

"Before asking any of us to follow a particular diet or exercise regime, Gopi Sir tries it out himself," says Kona. He also remembers him being angry with Sindhu once because she wasn't shouting while hitting the shuttle. "You need to be aggressive on the court. See how well Gopi Sir's instruction worked for her," he adds, beaming.

Gurusai Dutt, who bagged gold at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, recalls a particularly long day at the games a few years ago. "We couldn't find any transportation when we left the stadium and our hotel was rather far off," he says. "Gopi Sir ensured I got a ride back on a two-wheeler, while he walked back all the way."

After returning from Rio, Gopichand told his students, "There are so many rich and influential people in the country, but only very few people get the opportunity to make the nation feel proud. Only sportspersons with their achievements unite the nation and bring that sense of pride."

This is the goal this simple, soft-spoken and steadfast coach is working towards.

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First Published: Sat, August 27 2016. 00:29 IST
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