At the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Bhavina Patel was one of the Indian favourites for gold, even if one didn't hear much about her given India's 200+ athletes.
While all eyes were on usual suspects to continue their multi-sport event heroics, the 35-year-old Patel was the one sure-shot medallist in India's relatively smaller specially-abled athlete contingent. After all, like wrestlers and hockey players, she had a reputation to uphold from last year's Tokyo Games.
In 2021, the para table tennis player won silver at Tokyo Paralympics with a giant-killing run that included wins over four higher-ranked players. She was earmarked for CWG success since that performance in her debut Paralympic Games (she missed out on Rio for what was said to be a technical reason) where she became only the second Indian woman to medal after Deepa Malik.
Patel was well aware of these expectations and even spoke about how the pressure of the spotlight was getting to her. She also felt like she had a score to settle after narrowly missing out on the semis when India hosted the Games in 2010.
"Ek hisab chukta karna hai ki (I have an account to settle). In 2010, I lost the deciding game by one point. I have to correct that record in Birmingham," Bhavina had said in an interaction organized by the Sports Authority of India before the CWG.
Soon after, she 'settled' it with the gold medal in women's singles class 3-5 with a straight-games win over Nigeria's Ifechukwude Christiana Ikpeoyi. Patel dropped only one game throughout the tournament, in her opener against Australia's Daniela Di Toro. Every other match was a 3-0 win, even when she was facing game points. Talk about dominance.
The talk of avenging does not exactly go with Patel's on-court attitude. She is regularly seen meditating on the sidelines In between games, instead of discussing with her coach. She sips water, shuts her eyes and goes silent, but that is only when she is away from the table. Beneath that composure, though, she is a fierce competitor with the racquet in hand and has only grown in confidence since Tokyo.
Her gold medal match in Birmingham is a very good example of the calm yet competitive player Patel is.
The first game was closely fought with the scores level at 8-8 before the Nigerian got to game point first. Patel saved it and went on to win the next few points to steal the game from her opponent. Back to meditating, while Ikpeoyi was in an animated chat with her coach. The second game was as one-sided as it gets as Patel raced away to a lead and took it 11-2. Steady, forcing errors from her opponent and not letting her emotions show.
In the third game, it was the Nigerian took who led 6-2, then 7-3 and then 8-4 but Patel looked unfazed. She slowly levelled things and took the next two points to bring up the gold medal point, letting her emotions flow only after she had clinched it.
Bhavina Patel - Commonwealth Games champion. A dream that was left unfulfilled 12 years ago was now her reality.
Patel has broken enough stereotypes already - a differently-abled woman from rural Gujarat making a career as an athlete in a wheelchair. "I come from a small village. There were a lot of restrictions. People kept asking, 'You're a girl, and you can't do anything. What will you do when you grow up?... If I had to go anywhere, even school, my parents had to lift me on their back and take me there (and back). There were so many difficulties..." she had told ESPN in a conversation at Birmingham.
In comparison, breaking the shackles of expectations after the Paralympics must have seemed easy. In fact, this expectation is also an inspiration for others now.
"My training centre in Gujarat gets a lot of calls every day from enthusiasts who say that they want to be like Bhavina. They think if Bhavina can do it, we all can. It's a big thing for me to be inspirational for some and I want to inspire more," she had said before the gold.
If Tokyo was about making her name into the spotlight of Indian sport, Birmingham was about how she belongs there.
Bhavina Patel is ESPN India's Para-Athlete of the Year (2022).