Abu Dhabi: For the eight-member Indian badminton athletes at the Special Olympics, coach Dhiraj Sawant is a hero. They look up to him for all the hard yards he puts in to make sure that the Indian team leaves a mark on the Games.
Ahead of matches, Rohit Nag and Parvat Baral use sign language to communicate with Sawant to express their concerns. They can neither speak, nor hear. Monika Mohanto, Vikrant Kumar and Afrin Ansari too have hearing and speech disability. But they've never felt uncomfortable on the court and off it, thanks to Sawant's quick adaptability and understanding of these young shuttlers.
"He is our everything, our God," says Nag, who represents Jharkhand and is one of the talented players, raising his hand in sign language at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), the venue for badminton and many other indoor sports of the Special Olympics World Games. Other shuttlers too pointed towards the coach when asked about their inspiration.
There was a slew of questions running in Sawant's head when he first took up coaching these shuttlers four years ago. Not only did he struggle to teach them individually, but also faced the dilemma of bringing them together.
However, amidst all the chatter around the Games preparation at the ADNEC, the Indian badminton contingent was the only team that stood together as a group. They eat, walk and play in unison. It says a lot about Sawant's coaching standards and his desire to instill unity as a yardstick to follow.
From learning the sign language to teaching them how to hold the racquet to mastering the forehand drives, Sawant has come a long way. But he knew it wasn't going to be an easy task. "Some kids don't even know what to do when they are on the court. We have to teach them in as many ways possible every single day. They won't understand it quickly. It's a routine we follow because communicating becomes a hassle. I couldn't understand what they're trying to tell me and vice versa," Sawant, who has played badminton and is also a physical training teacher at a special school in Goa, says.
The eight shuttlers representing India in Abu Dhabi have overcome adversity to grasp the necessary strokes and movements needed. Some took six months, while others underwent rigorous training for more than a year to study one shot. But coach Sawant has relished the challenges thrown at him and have taught him a life-changing experience. "It is a very different experience, my players are almost like family," he says as the forms a huddle with the whole squad.
"Each one is different, with different ability levels, and you have to understand each one closely, give them specific training. And surprisingly, you learn a lot from them too. I learned the sign language from them, for many in this team can't hear or speak."
For all the shuttlers, it is the first time that they have travelled abroad, let alone participate in an event of this magnitude. "They are absolutely thrilled as you can see," says Sawant. "All of them are travelling outside the country for the first time. They're feeling normal after meeting so many people with intellectual disabilities. It surely is a great confidence-booster. I would like them to discover themselves and learn new things," he adds.
Just coming to Abu Dhabi is a dream for many. "This is a wonderful experience and I hope to return with a medal," said Divyabharathi Elango, who hails from Madurai.
There's no doubt about them being the winners irrespective of the results, and what truly stands out is their journey to break barriers and abolish the stigma that surrounds them. For instance, devoid of facilities in a small village of Odisha, Baral has relied on YouTube videos to learn the tricks of the trade for years now.
"All of my kids are fond of badminton and keep watching matches on their television sets or YouTube. There are no badminton courts where Baral lives but he has learned the sport all by himself just by watching," says Sawant.
"They have great energy levels. Yes, it's sometimes difficult for them to pick up things but they never give up. They keep learning every day. What else can I ask for as a teacher?"
Encapsulating the Games' motto, 'Meet The Determined', the eight-member Indian badminton team is determined to bring laurels for the country in Abu Dhabi. For the next eight days, 7,500 athletes from 195 countries will compete in 24 Olympic-style sports and be the voices of people with intellectual disabilities across the world. India, with 284 athletes and 71 coaches, is the second largest contingent after the USA (320 athletes). They're ready to rumble in the UAE.
The writer is in Abu Dhabi on an invitation from Special Olympics World Games