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My next goal is to defend Paralympic gold, also dream of competing at 2036 Games: Bhagat

Dead chuffed to have equalled Chinese badminton icon Lin Dan’s record of five World Championships titles, Indian para shuttler Pramod Bhagat now wants to defend his Paralympic gold in Paris, and has also set himself a long-term target of staying fit till the 2036 Games.

The 35-year-old Bihar-born para shuttler on Sunday matched Lin Dan’s record after outwitting England’s Daniel Bethell 14-21 21-15 21-14 in the SL3 (standing/lower limb impairment/severe) final.

“Since the Olympics, I lacked in my training, and he also worked on his game, and he always had an upper hand in the 7 to 8 times that we have played in the finals. So, it became a mental barrier for me. I had to break that barrier before the Paris Olympics,” Bhagat, who was diagnosed with polio when he was five years old, told  PTI.

“I wanted to rectify the mistakes, which I had committed in open tournaments. So, in January, my doubles partner Sukant (Kadam) and I went to Nikhil Kanetkar Badminton Academy in Pune.

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“Nikhil sir is an Olympian and has a lot of experience. He helped me. We focussed mainly on how I could regain my strengths and beat Daniel. Since it is a big event, whoever wins will have an upper hand ahead of the Olympics.” With the win, Bhagat completed a hat-trick of crowns after Stoke Mandeville in 2015 and Basel in 2019. He also won a gold medal at 2022 Tokyo and 2009 Seoul edition.

“It was an important win for me, not only because I wanted to equal Lin Dan’s record but also because the Olympics is the next big event, and I wanted to go into Paris without any mental barrier.

“It will help me to retain my gold, and that is the goal now,” said Bhagat, who was conferred the prestigious Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award in 2021.

Talking about the Paris Games, Bhagat said: “Tokyo was my debut Olympics, and I got a lot of support from the public and government. The most important thing was the recognition which I received and it has made me more hungry to go and defend my gold.” 

A fan of the 39-year-old Hendra Setiawan and 36-year-old Mohammad Ahsan of Indonesia, Bhagat says he has a long-term goal of competing at the 2036 Olympics.

“I also have a goal of participating at the 2036 Paralympics, which hopefully, India will host. Age is a number and I am fit and I hope I can stay fit and compete in 2036. It is a very long-term goal but not an impossible dream,” Bhagat said.

India is likely to bid for the hosting rights for the 2036 Olympics, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi also declaring last October the country’s interest in hosting the Games.

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“If not singles, I can play in mixed or men’s doubles. India is becoming a sports hub, and I want to be there when India gets to host the Paralympics.” 

At the World Championships in Thailand, Bhagat also won two bronze medals in mixed and men’s doubles, along with Sukant Kadam and Manisha Ramadass respectively. The three medals took his tally to 14, including six gold, three silver, and five bronze across categories.

Talking about the 100-minute final against Bethell, Bhagat said: “In the first game, I was playing fast-paced rallies, using more smashes, and I was getting tired as he was good in dribbles. So, after losing the opening game, I changed my strategy.

“I started to keep him at the back, playing more tosses. As the rallies got extended, he started making mistakes as he wanted to get quick points, and thereafter, I controlled the game. I was able to retrieve his shots.”

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