Valeska Knoblauch of Germany will be one to watch at the Japan Para Badminton International next week, as the badminton fraternity gathers in Tokyo for a tournament that serves as the test event for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Knoblauch who was women’s singles world No.1 in the wheelchair (WH1) category until August 2019, dropped to second spot after a quarterfinal loss to China’s Yin Menglu at the TOTAL BWF Para Badminton World Championships 2019 in Basel, Switzerland.
“I should have been more calm and relaxed but I was too nervous and didn’t focus on my strengths nor on my game plan. I think I was just too tense,” she said about that match.
But it’s not Yin that she cites as a threat. “It’s Sarina Satomi.”
According to Knoblauch, Japan’s Satomi, the WH1 world champion is the toughest challenge in singles.
“She has had consistently good results in her latest tournaments and is rightly the world champion as she is already a very complete player regarding her abilities,” she explained.
However, Knoblauch is not without her strengths and accomplishments.
Although Knoblauch lost to Satomi in the finals of the Thailand Para Badminton International in September, she defeated her a week later at the China Para Badminton International and went on to win that tournament in the final against Yin Menglu.
In 2018, she defeated Karen Suter-Erath of Switzerland to be crowned European Champion. Since then, she’s risen through the ranks and has claimed her place among the top women wheelchair athletes. Knoblauch also plays women’s doubles with Elke Rongen and in the mixed doubles she partners Young-Chin Mi.
A rather huge feat for someone who never imagined she would one day be a world-class athlete.
“Becoming the world No.1 and now having the opportunity to play in the very first Paralympics is a very big deal to me. I doubt I would have ever experienced this if I had been a person without a disability,” said Knoblauch, who is currently second in the Race To Tokyo rankings.
Knoblacuh was 14 when while at school she jumped up to sit on the classroom window sill with her friends. Not realising the window was open, she leaned back and fell out, landing on her spine.
“My spine broke and I was paraplegic,” she said.
Overcoming her disability with the support of her family and friends, Knoblauch bounced back into daily life. After several months in hospital and rehabilitation, she went back to school and when she was 18 she started playing badminton. She hasn’t looked back since.
“Before the accident, I loved to dance but dancing in a wheelchair was never an option for me. I tried basketball and table tennis in rehabilitation but it didn’t ‘catch me’ like badminton. Badminton I just liked from the beginning. It was also the people I started with who made me like it a lot. I like the challenge of controlling the wheelchair and the racket,” she explained.
Life is not all about badminton though. Knoblauch is a psychology student at the Universität zu Köln in Cologne, Germany and has ambitions to become a psychotherapist.
Encouraged by a psychologist who helped her overcome the fact that she would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life, she believes she too can help others in similar situations as her. Her studies have also helped her to become a better athlete.
“We don’t study sport psychology at university but I think I understand mental coaching differently than others because I have a more comprehensive understanding of cognitive processes,” she explained.
While Knoblauch’s chosen sport does require such precise mental skills, she claims her strength is her physical power, which puts her opponents under pressure.
Since the European Championships 2018, Knoblauch and her teammates have been training together under a national coach who also travels with the German Para badminton team to tournaments.
“The coach spots our weaknesses, then we work on that when we’re back in Germany. We also have more on and off-court training than before such as strength training and endurance. And the Olympic Training Centre in my hometown offers us physiotherapy, nutrition counselling and mental training.” All that she needs in preparing for Tokyo 2020.
Knoblauch’s physical and psychological might will be tested next week at the Japan Para Badminton International as she can expect to face local sweetheart Satomi, as well as Thailand’s Sujirat Phookham who has recently returned to the circuit after recovering from an injury.
Knoblauch, however, also looks forward to the atmosphere that extends beyond competition.
“We go to compete and win but we’re also friends. We look forward to meeting at each tournament, to catch up on each other’s lives because we’ve all known each other a long time. It’s very special atmosphere and I’m honoured to be a part of it. And it’s so much fun as well.”