33-year-old Ashwini Ponappa is not your regular girl. Having won her first national title in 2004 in the badminton sub-junior girls' doubles category, Ponappa went on to represent the country at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where she secured the first gold medal for India in the event.
In an exclusive interview with Cosmo India, the Red Bull athlete opens up about hailing from a ‘sporty’ family and how it helped her foray into a field not deemed fit for a woman.
Cosmo: What was life like growing up?
Ashwini Ponappa: Both my parents worked extremely hard to ensure that my brother and I enjoyed a comfortable life. From taking us on treks, bird watching, and impromptu getaways to shuttling me back and forth from badminton practice—all while juggling full-time jobs—I am grateful for all that they’ve done for us.
Cosmo: Your father was a hockey player and your relatives hail from a ‘sporty’ background, too. Did this make it any easier for you to foray into this field?
Ashwini Ponappa: It did. Dad knew the ups and downs of the sport. Together with mum, they both did everything they could to help me pursue badminton as a profession.
Cosmo: Many sportspersons, across the globe, have opened up about the pressures to perform and compete. What is your relationship with mental health?
Ashwini Ponappa: For every 100 players there will be less than a handful of players who are either born mentally tough, have had circumstances toughen them up, or have had help to learn to deal with the mental side of the sport. For a lot of us, it’s learning to ride the wave and not crash. Growing up, I wasn’t mentally tough, and a big lesson I learnt was to enjoy the sport—especially matches. My mom was always open to exploring the mental side of the sport and got me help. Over the years I’ve relied a lot on my family, friends, and coaches. They’ve been a great source of strength and motivation for me.
Cosmo: Who has had the most profound influence on your career, and what are your goals and aspirations going forward?
Ashwini Ponappa: My family. They’ve been the only constant, over the years. They have been there for me and have guided and supported me through all the ups, downs, and the in-betweens. As for goals, I aspire to be able to perform at a level I believe I am capable of, and work on myself—both on and off the court.
Cosmo: What goes on in your mind when you’re representing your country on an international platform?
Ashwini Ponappa: I absolutely love being on the court representing India. It fills me with a lot of pride and gratitude and makes me want to give my best to the sport.
Cosmo: Any piece of advice for budding badminton players who’re looking to turn their passion into a career?
Ashwini Ponappa: One must understand that to get to the top, you need to ride through bumpy roads, with little or no guarantee that you’ll make it. But if you are passionate about the sport, learn to enjoy the journey without worrying about the destination. The process of working towards a goal is a life skill that will take you a long way, irrespective of the outcome.
Cosmo: How can we encourage young, female sports aspirants to pursue their passion?
Ashwini Ponappa: Being a women’s doubles player and seeing how, time and again, the event is looked down upon—it’s disheartening. For upcoming sports aspirants, there aren’t enough opportunities to showcase their talent. The Red Bull Shuttle Up campaign lends a great platform to encourage aspiring women’s doubles players. Ritika Thaker and Simran Sanghi from Mumbai, who won the first edition of the tournament, are a part of the national camp.
Cosmo: What brings you joy, and what makes you sad?
Ashwini Ponappa: A lot of things bring me joy. I love a lot of things. It’s as simple as looking at the sky, being with family and friends, playing with dogs and other animals, watching dramas and reading books, and so on. At the same time, I am an emotional person and do get affected by things I perceive negatively.
Cosmo: How do you relax and unwind on your off days?
Ashwini Ponappa: I watch a tonne of Asian dramas, read or listen to books, and hang out with friends.
Cosmo: What is your life's motto?
Ashwini Ponappa: To constantly learn and grow. There is no end to learning, and I love how—as I’m getting older—I seem to understand things better.