Like most boys in India, Tarun Dhillon’s sport of choice was cricket.
“I started young and fell in love with the idea I could make a good living playing cricket,” admits the Haryana native.
An accident at the age of 10 put paid to his cricketing dreams but paved the way for another possibility, one that has now propelled him to become one of India’s top Para badminton athletes, ranked second in the world in men’s singles Standing Lower (SL4).
Dhillon suffered a deep cut from a fall 16 years ago. The lack of proper and immediate medical attention caused the wound to be infected, requiring two surgeries. At a period in a boy’s life when the bones and body are developing, the delay prevented normal growth, causing deformity of his right leg and locking of the knee.
“I was in bed for a long time but I only dreamt of cricket. About a year after my accident, I discovered badminton.
“I get to play all the time now because I’m a professional and it’s an honour to be in this position, representing my country,” said the 25-year-old Jakarta 2018 Asian Para Games gold medallist.
Starting at school level competitions with his able-bodied teammates, Dhillon’s talent was apparent from the very start to his family and school coaches, without whom he wouldn’t have come so far.
“Even though I’m playing at a very good level and everything is accessible to me, I still rely on my coaches and family to keep me motivated.”
Dhillon made international headlines when he won the men’s singles at the BWF Para Badminton World Championships 2013, and went on to repeat his golden performance in 2015 for his second world title. Two years later, he managed silver in men’s singles and doubles.
During the TOTAL BWF Para Badminton World Championships 2019 final against France’s Lucas Mazur, Dhillon fell and injured his right knee, and had to again settle for second place.
“I’m a skilful player and my experience is an advantage. Sometimes I get a bad feeling when I think about injuries and not being able to play my best, so I’m now working on improving my physical strength which is my weakness, and I know I can deliver better results in the future.”
The knee injury sustained in August 2019 took Dhillon out of competition at a time when his peers were vying to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Barely three months later, Dhillon got back on court at the HULIC Daihatsu Japan Para Badminton International 2019, an effort which saw him ousted in the first round.
At the Peru Para Badminton International this year, Dhillon again aggravated the injury and retired in the semifinal against teammate Suhas Lalinekere Yathiraj.
Although these were not the results he desired, Dhillon sees 2019 as a successful enough year.
“These were my performances before fully recovering. So, it gives me immense confidence, because if I can play well in recovery phase, I know I can make a strong comeback.
“As soon as I returned from Peru, I started working hard with my physio. The postponement of the Paralympics gives me more time to recover and be ready. I’m under the supervision of some of India’s best physios and doctors, and I feel stronger by the day.”
Being confined at home during the global pandemic has meant having to self-impose the discipline of sticking to a routine and replicating the exercises formulated by the physiotherapist.
“Trying to maintain a schedule at home is not easy. I’m constantly checking with my physio and coaches. Our team coach Gaurav Khanna has been especially encouraging because he knows this lockdown affects our routine. He’s very motivating in my most difficult times.”
The distraction of being at home however, is not totally unwelcome, as it has allowed Dhillon to catch up on reading, movies, watching badminton videos, and the most precious of all, leisure time with his mother and three sisters.
“I’m even trying to learn cooking. I know it’s a skill that will come in handy one day.”
Future plans however do not involve becoming a chef as Dhillon intends to give back to his community what he has been so privileged to experience.
“I want to be a badminton coach or work in some sports related field. I’ve never felt like a person with a disability and I’m thankful for being able to live this life because so many people have helped me get to where I am. I want to do the same for others in my situation.”