It is not surprising that for someone who was introduced to sport when she was four and has gone with the flow for nearly a quarter century now, sport has shaped her life. Olympic table tennis player Neha Aggarwal, whose day job with Olympic Gold Quest entails enabling elite athletes realise their potential, has retained her passion for fitness.
“The transition from an elite athlete who trained eight hours a day to work that largely means travel, interaction with athletes and working on a laptop is tough,” she confesses, with that endearing, trademark smile of her. The 28-year-old moved from Delhi to a more laidback Hyderabad after marriage and has done well to keep fitness central to her.
“How do you keep your body in shape and the mind working actively with just an hour of exercise? It is killing and very hard. From aiming to win a medal for India, the aim for fitness has changed. Therefore, the expectations from the exercise are also altered accordingly. It comes with a price and takes a toll,” says Neha Aggarwal.
She knows the impact is not even close. “It is not there anymore but my body needs physical activity and I generally like doing that. I am very much into fitness, though the regime has changed. The hour is divided between runs in the KBR Park and the home gym. It is not to connect with my game. I play table tennis once in a while. I know my skills are not going anywhere,” she says.
The lanky former player is ever willing to share her learning as an elite athlete. “As an athlete you win and lose every day. You can have a bad training session and that can destroy your whole week. You deal with those emotions at a minute level each day. My biggest learning is to be patient to wait for the results after you implement changes. That’s when we get stressed.
“You are working hard and the feeling is that reward could be around the corner. Many times, it may not happen. For, others are training equally hard. We don’t have patience and it cannot be taught. It comes with experience. Look at Sharath Kamal. Even after losing, and suffering a career-threatening injury, he has shown patience to get back. Patience helps deal with a lot,” she says.
One of the other important facets of Neha Aggarwal is that she has learnt through sport to deal with success and failure, winning and losing. “I am very proud that I was very humble during my career. It came from family. We never went and celebrated victories. My parents were always the same, win or lose. The reactions were always the same. They kept me very humble,” she says.
Interestingly, despite table tennis being an individual sport, the former National gold medal winner developed leadership skills during her playing days. “In my own way I was a leader. It comes with a vision to see India or your team as a whole to win. It is easier to be a leader in a team sport but in an individual sport, where you are playing for yourself, it is very hard to be a leader.
“In many ways, your team-mate, your practice partner is actually your competition unlike in football or hockey where the team is working as one unit. I would always want to see India winning. Therefore, you give your best in a championship and in camps where you support one another,” she says.
“It is important to be secure in what you do and who you are. Every athlete is insecure, and anyone who says that one is not insecure that the other will take one’s position, one is not being entirely honest. It is competitive scenario at the end of the day. Therefore, one is not confident in terms of sharing or being supportive,” says Neha Aggarwal, who bucked that trend.
More than making it to the Olympic Games as a teenager in 2008, she cherishes her fine comeback from doubts that led to a dip in form between 2010 and 2012 and an exit from the top 16 rankings in India. “I worked triple harder Not just on the table. I changed a lot in terms of coaching, technique, fitness and mental make-up. And being fearless on the table,” she recounts.
“You meet expectations by working hard and winning. I had not seen defeat till 2008. From cadets to sub-junior to junior and senior. I went to the Olympic Games when I was 18. It was an upward curve. The stress came when I was not winning. It was killing. I managed that by working harder and got back with help with developing mental strength,” Neha Aggarwal says.
“It was painful each day, watching others from a distance despite training eight hours each day. I moved to Chennai for two years, found a mental trainer who helped me work on my sub-conscious and quell the negative thoughts. When I stepped to play in the 2013 Nationals in Raipur, I believed I had never lost a match – and this after losing consistently over two years,” she says.
People had been seeing her as an over the hill player. “I did not lose a single match in the team championship that Delhi women won for the first time. I remember being very confident as if 2010 to 2012 had not happened. I lost in the women’s singles semifinals to Poulami Ghatak. And there was a bit of anger. I was supposed to win that match,” she says.
It is such learning that she has made available to athletes now, having armed herself with a Masters’ degree in Sports Management from Colombia University in the United States. “We had a lack of knowledge in the country – technical, tactical, fitness. We were uninitiated in strategic planning. It is coming up now. There is more information now and people are willing to share,” she says.
She is not inclined to spend time wondering if she is an inspiration anymore. “I don’t think about it and so, I do not feel any pressure on that account. I am not anymore written about every day. I do not make daily trips to the academy anymore and am not closely associated with my sport to feel that I could have been an inspiration. It is not a part of my conscious being,” she says.
Yet, there is no doubt that as someone for whom sport has been life and whose life has been shaped by sport, it continues to remain a part of her life. With her willingness to share her experience in the world of sport post active playing days, Neha Aggarwal remains an inspirational figure, lighting up the way for others.