Friday, August 8, 2008, will forever be the most exhilarating day of my life. As I walked inside the Beijing National Stadium (a.k.a. Bird’s Nest) clad in a beautiful green Sari, I pinched myself twice. At 18 years of age, I was at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as the only Indian to represent our country in the sport of table tennis. I had goose bumps as I saw the legendary gymnast Li Ling ignite the Olympic torch in the most magnificent way.
I qualified for the Beijing Olympic Games in March 2008, four months before the games were to start. At the qualifying tournament in Hong Kong, when I was presented the key to Beijing, I could not believe my eyes. Every athlete dreams of being an Olympian, as years of hard work and sacrifice come into play. Until I reached the Delhi airport, I had not realized what I had achieved. As I landed, I was greeted with media, friends, fans, my coaches, my team, table tennis enthusiasts and of course, my family. We celebrated my qualification with music, dancing and sweets. I was living a dream.
The four months leading up to the Games were full of hard work, excitement, sudden media attention and the knowledge of the expectations of an entire nation. As I was excited to compete at the biggest stage of sport, deep inside my heart, I also felt the pressure to perform, but – I was ready for the challenge. As I boarded the flight to Beijing, my coach presented me the Bhagwat Gita, the holy book of Hindus, which gave me strength and the belief to endure this new challenge.
The Olympic Village was like a wonderland with more than 10,900 elite athletes from 204 countries all living under one roof. The village had everything you could possibly think of: a 24-hour dining hall, a highly-equipped gym, a recreational area with games and movies, a polyclinic, a shopping center, logistics center, restaurants, a library, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, jogging tracks and even a saloon and a bank. I had never experienced something of this magnitude.
I shared my room with India’s badminton sensation and 2012 London Olympic Games bronze medalist, Saina Nehwal. The experience of living with her was inspirational. We bonded over so many issues common to female athletes in India and her journey as a badminton star. I was also in the company of other elite international and Indian stars, dining with them everyday. I was constantly learning and growing.
The Indian Table Tennis Team did not send a coach with us, thus it was always a challenge to look for practice partners leading up to competition. My idol, and the only male table tennis player from India in Beijing, Sharath Kamal, helped me and sometimes even practiced with me for a couple of hours.
My match was scheduled for August 13, 2008, against Lay Jiang Fang from Australia. As I entered the arena wearing my India jersey, I was electrified. Table Tennis is the national sport of China and is widely followed by the the locals all over the country. The Peking University Gymnasium was packed with thousands of passionate table tennis fans. That day, it felt as if the entire world was there watching me and, back in India, my game was telecasted live on national television. Millions of Indians cheered for me as I fought my best. At the World Championships earlier in the same year, I had defeated Lay in a close contest. I was thus hopeful of winning. I started the game well taking a 1-0 lead. But as the game progressed I faltered too many times and was succumbing to the pressure. I eventually lost 1-4.
I was heartbroken.
Although my Olympic dream of earning a medal was over in the first round, I took home some great memories. More than anything else, the fact that I was not only the first woman from my state (New Delhi) to compete at the Olympics, but also the youngest Indian at Beijing and the only woman to represent India in the sport of table tennis, was stunning. All of this at the age of 18.
The feeling of being an “Olympian” is not something many in the world share. It is both an honor and a responsibility.
Eight years later, reminiscing on my journey, I understand that I took back something more than fond memories. I took back home a vision, a responsibility, a challenge and a dream. The challenge to make India a powerhouse in the Olympic world.