humans of leap - neha aggarwal
neha aggarwal is an indian table tennis player, an olympian, a leap.club member, and this is her story:
“born in delhi to a conservative, middle-class baniya family, i'm the youngest of two brothers. in a house where i saw my cousin’s end goal of finding the right husband, sports became my career path - thanks to my dad. at the age of 4, i became a national champion in the under-6 skating category. it felt like my calling. but in 1996, when my coach moved to kerala, my father enrolled me in tt classes. my childhood changed forever – waking up at 4:45, rigorous training, missed school buses, and a forever-packed schedule.
dealing with stereotypes and facing resistance from family didn’t make it any easier. my grandmother didn’t like me wearing shorts or going out to play with boys. conflicted between the athletic persona on the court and societal expectations at home, the struggle was real.
when i was 8, my father took me to watch the asian championship at talkatora stadium in delhi. days later, i returned home to find a tt table! the same one used in the asian championship finals. despite financial constraints, my dad spent rs 12,000 on it and on my low days, i keep going back to this moment.
in 1998, i won my first big trophy in the delhi state tournament, but the glassdoor moment for me was the victory at the national championship in baroda in 2001. after two decades, someone from delhi had won, and that someone was me. it changed the course of my life – standing on that podium to receive the trophy, i could taste the sweetness of success and the path seemed very clear to me; i wanted to make india proud and see our flag rise high. at that very moment, i dreamt of representing india in the olympics but the journey after wasn't a walk in the park. in a world of cricket fans, i chose table tennis - a niche sport that nobody took seriously. as a woman, i hardly experienced sisterhood, everyone i knew was a competitor, not a companion. it was a very lonely journey filled with self-doubt but i kept my focus and invested every drop of sweat in turning that dream into reality. it's safe to say that with each passing day, i inched closer, holding the title of a four-time indian junior national champion.
in 2003, an article about me headlined – "waiting for 2008 olympics"
fast forward to 2007, i became the number 1 table tennis player in india for seniors and played to qualify for olympics in hong kong. three girls were shortlisted and i beat the other two, earning my spot at the olympics at just 18. things were pretty low-key until i landed in delhi. the newspapers were filled with my story, and a huge crowd came to welcome me. that's when it hit me – i was one of the youngest olympians heading to beijing.
qualifying for the olympics was a massive deal, and although we enjoyed the celebration, it was back to training the next day. in sports (and in life) there's not much time to celebrate - you're only as good as your last shot.
after rigorous training for months, finally came the day of the opening ceremony. imagine, 10,000 people cheering for you, and all you can see are flashes of camera lights. in that instant, everything felt worth it – all those countless hours of hard work, the millions of times i cried. it was like every struggle and effort had led to this unforgettable moment.
i was all pumped up for my match because, well, i'd already beaten my opponent twice in the world championship before. it felt like a great start but walking into that stadium, carrying the indian flag, my heart was racing. i started off leading, but then i lost. the hype, the excitement, it all deflated in just 30 minutes. when the score was announced, i was shattered. i had dreamt of that olympic moment my entire life, worked tirelessly for it, and when it finally arrived, i lost to a player i had defeated just two months earlier.
in sports, the spotlight is unforgiving. winning means glory in front of a cheering crowd, but losing means facing not just the disappointment in the stadium, but also the probing questions of the media. it was a crushing blow but i had to put up a brave face and walk through the media room. at 18, giving interviews after such a loss was a daunting task. crying for hours, i called home, seeking solace, but nothing could ease the pain and it took me some time to get over it.
now, reflecting back, i analyse why i lost – inadequate mental readiness and if i could redo it, i'd change my training pattern.
after the olympics, life took a turn for me. i kept playing, trying my best, putting in the hard work, but the victories just weren't coming. i tried everything – changed coaches, moved to another city, practised mental training, just holding onto the belief that i would make a comeback. i was in depression and reached a point where i even attempted to harm myself. when you go from being a celebrated athlete to losing unexpectedly, it's brutal.
by october 2012, my confidence was shattered, i even considered quitting but my mentor, sharath kamal suggested giving myself three months to prepare for the nationals before making a final decision. it was a turning point. i took the pressure off, stopped obsessing over winning, and went back to basics – my original technique. my mental training helped eliminate the fear of losing, and i approached the nationals with a calm mind and a renewed sense of freedom. the first few matches were tough, getting used to my old style again, but soon, everything clicked.
the result? i not only won the 2013 national championship trophy but also bagged the title of 'unbeatable.' it was a tough game, and i played well. winning when you have nothing to lose is a different kind of triumph. i cherish this victory even more than the olympics because everyone, including me, thought i was finished. looking back, that time of comeback gives me strength.
after the 2013 win, i reclaimed my spot in the indian team and received my blazer. before that, it felt like i was naked. wearing it, the first thing i did was take a picture in front of my trophy cabinet. it felt like i had regained my pride and honour. it finally felt complete.
however, that moment of triumph was short-lived. a training mishap resulted in a serious back injury. i felt like my life was over, fearing that i might never play table tennis again but after improper rest, as i participated in subsequent matches, i realised i didn't have it in me anymore. i tried everything—comebacks, dealing with injuries and always wondered why we weren't winning. recognising my calling to help create strong athletes and ensure future generations get the training and support we missed, i decided to retire at 25. i pursued my masters in sports management from columbia university, worked at the united states olympics committee, the international table tennis federation, and now at olympic gold quest. i still miss the incredible highs that sports gave me; there's no feeling quite like it. however, i'm in a good and comfortable space now.
life feels good, my career is on track, and my goals are crystal clear. i finally have my feet under me. however, the pressure of considering motherhood has knocked on the door. the biological clock, as indra nooyi aptly puts it, starts ticking just when you reach the pinnacle of your career. but why does it have to tick? why do i have to consider it today or tomorrow? at 34, all i get asked is, "what's family planning looking like?" or people look at me like i'm selfish in choosing my career. it's disheartening that motherhood has become a compulsion and not a choice. it has made my journey complicated, but here's the thing—i'll make the decision when i'm 100% confident.
what i’d love to tell young women is to dare to dream. often, we set limits on our aspirations, confined by societal expectations. in 2003 i dreamt of playing in the olympics, and by 2008 i was doing it. the difference? i dared to dream when others hesitated. even after my retirement, when the spotlight dimmed, i held onto the belief that i could transition, bring change, and, most importantly, stay true to myself without seeking everyone's approval. remember, you don't have to please everyone. be real, follow your dreams, and let the world catch up with your extraordinary journey.”
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