Muscat: A former Indian expatriate has her eyes firmly set on representing her country at the 2024 Olympic Games and is making all-out efforts along with her family to achieve that dream.
Nineteen-year-old Janani Ananthakumar, an alumnus of Indian School Al Wadi Al Kabir, moved to India in 2014 to pursue her career as a professional badminton player and has won a glittering collection of trophies as she seeks to pull on the blue jersey at the highest-ever levels of sport.
Janani – who is also pursuing a commerce degree from Jain University in Bangalore – secured her latest athletic achievement, when she was part of the university team that won the gold medal at the Khelo India Youth Games, an annual multidisciplinary grassroots sports competition for school and university-level students.
She also recently won the Yonex Sunrise Assocham badminton tournament, in senior and under-19 levels, where she won gold in both the women’s and mixed doubles.
“She has her eyes firmly fixed on representing India at the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games, and if she remains fit, at the 2032 Olympics as well,” said her father, Ananthakumar Rajamani, in an exclusive interview with Times of Oman. “She knows the hard work and sacrifice it takes to achieve that, but she is prepared to do all it takes to get there.”
While Janani is prepared to endure all hardships on way to the Olympics, her family also requires to make sacrifices along the way.
“Janani is up at 5:15 every day – her mother gets up even earlier at 4:45 to prepare her breakfast and lunch – because her warm up and practice sessions begin at 6am,” said Rajamani. “Her diet has to be special, rich in protein so that she has the energy and stamina to play the game for long periods, with little to no fats or oil content. When she is injured, her food composition needs to change, so that she is able to heal, while not putting on weight because of lack of training.
“It is imperative that she gets to practice on time, otherwise her training gets disrupted,” he explained. “Earlier, we used to hire drivers to take her for practice in the morning, but with every driver, the same thing used to happen: They would come on time for a few days, but began making excuses, which left us with no transport option at short notice.”
Although the family is strictly vegetarian, they have eased that restriction and allowed Janani to eat non-veg food so that she gets even more strength and stamina to excel at the game.
Post-training, it’s time for lunch, with the rest of the afternoon spent on physical training and conditioning. Janani has dinner at about 8:30, before going to bed about an hour later, so that she can once again be up at the crack of dawn the next day.
“It is a hard schedule, but she knows she must adhere to it,” admitted her father. “Of course, like any youngster, she also sometimes wants to enjoy with her friends, enjoy an ice-cream or pizza with them, go out for a movie: These things are after all natural to all of us.
“However, she makes sure to ask her coaches whether it is okay to participate in such activities, because her eyes are firmly fixed on her long-term goals,” he added. “She knows that any deviation now could cost her dear later. Her coaches also sometimes use these breaks as incentives to get her to perform better.”
Tryst with badminton
Her tryst with badminton began by chance when she was just about eight or nine years old, on summer vacation in Bangalore. Her neighbour invited her to play a game of badminton jus to pass time, and by the time she returned to Oman, she was hooked to the sport.
With the support of her parents, Janani undertook professional coaching in Oman, but realised that she needed to move back to India so that she could practice with the feathered version of the badminton shuttlecock: Her training in Oman consisted primarily of playing with a plastic one that has a different trajectory and flight pattern.
Janani currently trains with ISports academy in Bangalore – one that is relatively close to her home – and more crucially, has an affiliation to the Prakash Padukone Academy, run by the legendary Indian shuttler who was ranked world number one in 1980, that enables her to train under the best coaches in the country and practice alongside some of India’s finest talents.
Her hard work, dedication and talent have translated into a host of steadily growing honours: Janani finished runner-up in the under-17 division of the All India National Championship and was crowned champion at the Karnataka State Championship Doubles in the under-19 category in 2018.
A year later, she was selected by the Badminton Association of India to play at the Khelo India Youth Games, before earning a team gold medal for Karnataka State at the School Games Federation of India’s National Championships.
Among many of her other prizes is the gold medal she earned as part of the Karnataka contingent that won the South Zone Interstate Badminton Championships in under-19 level. In 2019, she also won gold in the under-17 category at the All India National Doubles Championships. More gold medals followed at the Yonex Sunrise State Championship in Karnataka, where she won the under-17 girls’ doubles, mixed doubles and girls’ singles events.
In December 2019, alongside fellow rising star Suhas Venugopal, Janani won the National Badminton Championship when the two were crowned mixed doubles gold medalists in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Overseas, she and her teammate Tanya Hemanth made it to the last 16 of the Asia Junior Championships 2019, in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Janani’s star was slated to continue to rise, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought sports all around the world to a grinding halt.
“The pandemic has taken away plenty of precious time for athletes around the world,” said Ananthakumar.
“Any athlete has only a few years at the top, and unless they don’t train every day, they lose their sharpness, and to get it back is very difficult.
“The toll taken on all of us is quite heavy: We have in the past made arrangements for her to travel to places like Mexico, as well as to Europe for tournaments, but some of those had to be scrapped because of the COVID pandemic,” he added.
“We had made all the arrangements for her to travel, even booked the Schengen visas, but her tournaments were postponed because of the pandemic. We did not book Schengen visas subsequently, because we do not know when those tournaments will be rescheduled, and whether our visas will be valid until then.”
Janani returned to action in spectacular form in 2021, emulating her badminton idol Li Chong Wei when she put her best foot forward at the Yonex State Badminton Championship for selection into the Indian Olympic squads for Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.
She went all the way to the semis of the open women’s singles and mixed doubles, while also reaching the finals of the under-19 mixed doubles, and the quarter finals of the women’s doubles.
“If you want something hard enough and work hard, it will eventually be yours,” said Ananthakumar Rajamani.