When Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu won historic Olympic medals for Indian badminton at London 2012 and Rio 2016 respectively, the one thing connecting the duo was the presence of Pullela Gopichand on the sidelines.
Gopichand, the now chief coach of the Indian badminton team, is synonymous with India's phenomenal rise as a global badminton power but when he started out as a coach in 2003-04, there was a fair degree of cynicism.
So, what prompted Gopichand to keep going?
“It was like a burning desire to use the knowledge of a winning formula that I had learned from my travels but could not use myself because my body would not allow it then,” Pullela Gopichand said on the YouTube chat show ‘DRS with Ash’, hosted by Indian cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin.
“When I won All England (in 2001), I travelled to different places and learnt a lot from the advice and guidance of a lot of people from around the world. But I soon had two fractures (right knee and right ankle), then I had my knee surgery and after that I really could not come back to play.”
The Indian badminton coach also admitted that moving into coaching at the relatively young age of 30 did see some scepticism from senior players but his status as an All England champion helped Gopichand garner their respect and also attracted youngsters who wanted to play the sport.
“When you finish your career as a player, I think you are almost hanging off the cliff and you know that you have to fall off. If you decide to jump off the cliff when you have a bit of energy, you can bounce back,” explained the 46-year-old Gopichand.
“I think I was lucky at the end part of my career. I jumped into coaching and that gave me energy moving forward.”
The early days
While his passion for the sport had catapulted him into the world of badminton coaching, Pullela Gopichand did not have a proper structure in mind.
The idea of an academy did not come about immediately, and the Indian badminton coach started by mentoring a few interested youngsters in Hyderabad.
“April 2004 was the first time I started coaching kids on a daily basis and initially, it was like a start-up company. I was donning many hats - coach, guardian, physio, trainer and even watchman,” Pullela Gopichand recalled.
“It was years later that we actually found the money and things slowly took shape around 2006-2007. We had other coaches and physios join then. Many of them, some who have been there for more than a decade, form the core team now.”
The academy’s first major success came at the 2010 Commonwealth Games when Saina Nehwal won gold and her now-husband Parupalli Kashyap won bronze, after which it has produced two Olympic medals and multiple ones at the BWF World Championships.
In 2019, Gopichand received an honourable mention for the International Olympic Committee's Coaches Lifetime Achievement award for his services to develop badminton in India.