By Saumojyoti S Choudhury
When the COVID-19 pandemic derailed her preparations for the Paralympics, Table Tennis player Bhavinaben Patel found a perfect practice partner in a robot provided by the Sports Authority of India, an assistance which she feels, made all the difference in her historic silver-winning show in Tokyo.
Patel became the first Indian table tennis player to win a Paralympic medal by clinching the silver, going down to Zhang Miao of China in the summit clash.
And she credited her success to the TT Robot (Butterfly - Amicus Prime), which cost Rs 2,73,500, and an Ottobock Wheelchair, costing Rs 2,84,707, for her success.
"I got a robot through SAI TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) which is an advanced robot. It has many advanced features like you can get strokes from different angles.
"So, I got good variations from it in my game. It improved my game a lot. Besides the TOPS gave us other equipment like racquets," Patel, who was afflicted with polio as a toddler, told PTI in an interview after returning from Tokyo.
Made in Hungary, Amicus Prime claims to be the best ping pong robot available with 21 pre-saved drills and ball frequency of up to 120 per minute.
"During the pandemic time (lockdown), my husband arranged a table for me at home only. That time my coach got me a second hand robot with which I used to practice but after that I got the SAI robot in February-March 2020," she said.
She also spoke in detail about the huge difference the robot made in enhancing her game.
"My strokes got stronger after playing with the robot. I used to play 5000 balls in a day with the robot. The ball control and placements increased a lot, spin control, cut control also enhanced. All these differences came because of that robot," she elaborated.
Patel also credited her family, especially her husband Nikunj Patel, a former junior level cricketer for Gujarat with whom she had a love marriage in 2017.
"...he backed me to the tilt, pushed me saying 'you can do this and you have to do his because after seeing you many athletes will come forward, you have to become their inspiration'.
"Even now he tells me that you have long way to go. Nikunj has always supported me. Once I had thoughts after marriage that I can't continue the game but he stood behind me like a rock."
The couple married after falling in love following a chance encounter through common friends.
"It was a love marriage, We met through common friends and then we started talking over phone. After that we told our families and just took the plunge," added Patel.
She said it was a visit to the Blind People Association in Ahmedabad that changed her perception towards life and brought her into sports.
"I was born on 6th November 1986 and after one year I was struck by polio. But I was considered the luckiest person in my home because many household problems were solved after my birth.
"I have a big brother and an younger sister. In 2004-05 I started to visit the Blind People Association in Ahmedabad and there I saw many of my friends playing table tennis. After watching them I thought I should start the sport as a hobby," Patel said.
"I thought this is something where I can move forward. I used to feel happy when I played table tennis. From there on table tennis became my life."
Patel now wants to better her Paralympic performance in the upcoming world events.
"I want to give my 100 per cent in the next Commonwealth Games, Para Asian Games and Para World Championships and win gold. Going forward, I want to convert my silver into gold in Paris," she signed off. PTI SSC PM