ONE question I am repeatedly asked, to which I try to find an answer myself: what motivates me to continue after a long career, at the age of 40? Get up every day, try to improve technically in the table tennis hall, push myself to the limit in the gym, follow a strict regimen during the day, eat well or rest/sleep the required number of hours?
I’ve done all this for the last 30 years, enjoying the process and staying in a state of bliss through the highs and lows. Sixteen years ago when I won India’s first gold medal in table tennis at the Commonwealth Games, in Melbourne 2006, I shot to glory just like the sport of table tennis, but it took almost 12 years for Indian table tennis to make its rise on the world stage to mark.
In 2018, when Team India won eight medals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the strong growth of Indian table tennis was noticed. And over the past two years, first with my campaign for the Tokyo Olympics and then my conquest of the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games – with three golds and one silver medal – it has almost become a legendary story that has set high standards for the Indian Table Tennis Association.
Being chosen for the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award for my performance over the past four years was a hit and the best part is that no one else is sharing this award this year. I am glad that other athletes, sports executives, sports journalists and everyone who follows sports judged that Sharath Kamal Achanta was the right choice for the Khel Ratna 2022.
But all this did not happen overnight. Preparation for the Birmingham CWG began in November 2021, nine months in advance. My team consists of my table tennis coach, fitness coach, mental coach and nutritionist. They all systematically planned how the training process would be structured and we followed it almost to the point.
Workload management was guided with skill, strength, endurance, agility, reflexes, rest, recovery and nutrition. I learned a lot from my past experiences and clearly knew what it took to peak at the right time both physically and mentally. The main thing on my mind was how to stay fit and focused throughout the 13 days of competition, with over 20 matches in four different events. And that was what everyone on the field could see: an extremely fit Sharath Kamal with the best possible mentality and great body language.
Since 2016 I switched from myself to Indian TT and there has been a steady growth in the profile of the sport in India. That year, four of our rowers had qualified for the Olympics – two men and two women, the highest ever from India. That was followed by a brilliant performance at the 2018 Asian Games. We achieved two bronze medals, the first time ever for India to finish on the podium at the Asian Games. Then I won the Oman Open in 2020. And then came my personal best at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, with three golds and one silver.
Indian paddlers have come a long way from being ranked around 33rd in the world team rankings in 2003 to breaking into the top-8 a few years ago. Our performance has steadily improved given our infrastructure constraints. We don’t have huge stadiums with 40 tables spread across the playing field and training areas where the balls move very slowly but still have a constant bounce.
During my first international tournament I was intimidated by the sheer size of the halls and the number of tables on the training and competition grounds. I probably lost the match in my head even before the tournament started.
At the time, breaking into the top 100 was a big deal because very few people from India had done that, and it became my goal. When my European colleagues said I had the potential to be in the top 30 in the world, I found it very hard to believe because I hadn’t seen anyone’s journey to achieve that and I didn’t know what the path to take to get there. There was no proper system to guide or help us.
But slowly and steadily the scenario is improving. We had many international coaches come in with a good structure, system and routine for our practice sessions. The table tennis federation has collaborated with the Sports Authority of India and found quality coaches such as Massimo Constantino, Hubert Hustache and others. Each time we have spent a long period of time with a foreign coach in India, we have all improved significantly and performed well at the world level.
There was a time when I was the only one in the top 50 from India, but now we have five Indians, including the women, in the top 100 and three in the top 50. Indian table tennis is now strongly represented in the international scene and I am sure that with the kind of talent our juniors have, and with the right structure and guidance, India will become a force to be reckoned with.
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