New Delhi: Para-badminton athlete Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj has made it to the semi-finals of the men’s singles badminton (SL4 category) at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. The 38-year-old IAS officer, who is the serving District Magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh, won two of his matches in the group stage and lost one, and will now face Indonesia’s Fredy Setiawan for a chance to enter the gold medal match.
Yathiraj is the world No.3 in the men’s standing lower limb impairment (SL4) category, and has been proving his prowess on international courts since 2016, when he won a gold medal at the Asian Para-Badminton Championships in Beijing.
Following this, he has won a slew of medals across various championships. For the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Yathiraj was selected to be part of India’s seven-member badminton team, which is being led by world No.1 Pramod Bhagat.
“It is a dream come true to represent India at the highest sporting competition in the world and I am very fortunate… I want to take it one game at a time. I want to play my natural game without putting too much pressure on myself,” Yathiraj told ThePrint over WhatsApp messages from Tokyo.
Journey from chief guest to player
Suhas Yathiraj, a 2007-batch Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS officer, has had a leg impairment since birth, as a result of a post-polio residual paralysis in his right leg. He said he has been playing the sport since school, but only took it up competitively after joining government service.
“I never thought I would take up sports or badminton professionally, but after a certain time, when I started playing decently well, I thought I should try my game in the professional arena,” he said.
According to Dronacharya awardee national para-badminton coach Gaurav Khanna, Yathiraj’s foray into professional sports can be traced back to the UP State Badminton Championship in Azamgarh in 2015. Yathiraj, then the DM of Azamgarh district, was the chief guest at the opening ceremony, and played a few shots, which caught the coach’s eye.
“When I saw him playing badminton as a hobby, I thought that the movements are good enough, and if he wishes, he can step into professional badminton for athletes who are differently-abled… I also played a few strokes with him and told him his strokes are good enough,” Khanna, who is also in Tokyo, told ThePrint,
The IAS officer was reluctant at first, and took four or five months to decide on pursuing the sport. He then called Khanna. “We figured out how he can be a professional sportsperson and rearranged his schedule as per his administrative duties, because you cannot continue to just play badminton… Once you step into a professional sport, you need to do all the homework,” the coach added.
A year later, Yathiraj started making his mark as a para-badminton player.
“It was in 2016 I tried my hand in Beijing, China. For that I prepared specifically and was fortunate and won the gold medal in the first tournament itself. Sometimes destiny takes you to places where you never thought you would go,” he said.
Since then, the IAS officer’s haul of medals has only grown.
In 2017, Yathiraj bagged two gold medals (men’s singles and doubles) in the Badminton World Federation Turkish Open Para-Badminton Championships in Antalya. In 2018, also in the Turkish Open, he won a silver medal in men’s singles.
Through 2018 and 2019, the IAS officer won several silver and bronze medals in BWF events in Uganda, Ireland, Thailand, China, Denmark and Japan. Then, he won the men’s singles gold medal again at the Turkish Open in 2019.
‘A spiritual experience’
A badminton player’s days involve six to seven hours of training, and Suhas Yathiraj has been keeping it up alongside his duties as the DM of Prayagraj and then Gautam Buddh Nagar.
“I have been very fortunate, that I love the job I do and the sport I play… Whenever you do something with passion, that gives you happiness, you don’t ever feel tired. In fact, I have always felt that badminton is a spiritual experience,” he said.
However, coach Khanna said things haven’t all been easy for Yathiraj. In June 2019, he received a call from the officer, asking for advice on whether he should continue pursuing the sport.
“He told me that it is very difficult for him to continue, as he is getting other important assignments from the government. He asked me what he should do, whether he should quit, but I told him that there can be thousands of IAS officers in India, but when you talk of an Olympian IAS, there is only one,” the coach said.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)