Neha Aggarwal is an Indian Olympian in Table Tennis and Head of Partnerships and Communication for Olympic Gold Quest. She has a Masters in Sports Management from Columbia University and is based in New Delhi, India.
1. We are so excited to learn about your journey. When did you play table tennis for the first time?
Our school used to organize a state-level table tennis tournament in Delhi. My brother won a silver medal in that tournament. My parents were thrilled on his victory. Post which, they decided to send both of us for table tennis coaching and that’s how it all started. I was initially reluctant, but when I won my first state-ranking tournament in 1999, I was hooked. I loved the the high from a win. In 2001, I won the National Championship in the “under 14” category. At this point, I decided that this is all I wanted to do, and there was no looking back.
2. Did you or anyone around you think at the time that one day you’d represent India in the Olympics?
Not at all! At the time, there wasn’t much awareness about sports like there is today, but I was doing really well every year in my respective age category. From 2001 to 2005, I entered the finals of the national championship each year and won three of them. I also got the chance to represent India internationally in 2001 for the first time. I won my first medal in 2002, a bronze in China, which was an unmatched feeling.
Slowly, I was winning more medals at the international level and became a regular member of the Indian team. In 2007, I became the number one player in India. I started thinking about Olympics as I saw my seniors taking part in Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Olympics. But my parents never thought I'd get there some day .
3. Did your family support your decision to play table tennis professionally? It will be great to learn about the role they played in your journey.
Whatever I have achieved in my career as a table tennis player is only because of their support - morally, financially and strategically. My father is a businessman and many times he had to sacrifice his work (undergo losses too) to travel with me, only to make sure I was comfortable and did not have to take care of any logistics.
Table tennis is also an expensive sport, and they made sure finances didn’t come in the way of my success. We belong to a very traditional family and none of my cousins have played sports professionally. So for my parents to do this was a big step, breaking out of the stereotype of what a girl can do and cannot. But more than anything else, their support, encouragement and belief in my capability helped me endure the tough life of an Olympian.
4. How did you train for the sport?
I would practice before and after school, both at my home and at an academy. It was five hours of training, everyday for six days a week. Once I started attending national camps, we would train under a foreign coach for about six to seven hours a day. I also went for short camps in Germany, China and Sweden to gain more exposure.
5. What are the challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?
There are many challenges we faced. I had a different style of play that was unique and criticized by the top coaches in India, so to learn the advanced technique was a challenge. In 2007, a year before the Olympic Games, my dad, coach and I flew to Switzerland to the learn right technique from one of the best coaches in the world in my style of play. That exposure really made a difference and helped me a lot in my qualification for the Olympic Games.
The other big challenge was that Table Tennis Federation of India appointed a new coach after every two years. As athletes it was hard for us to get used to this, as every coach had a different style of coaching.
Getting the right medical help was also a challenge. In 2013 I suffered a back injury and it took me almost 10 days to find a good sports doctor and physiotherapist to start my treatment. I finally found one, but the process of finding him was a big challenge. There were many more issues we faced at the ground level on a daily basis that I can write a book on!
6. Have you ever faced discrimination for being a female athlete in India?
Not really. I think because my parents were always so supportive.
7. Tell us more about your years at Columbia University?
As an athlete, I would always wonder why we are not a big sporting nation. Amongst many explanations, one of the biggest is that we do not have sports professionals as administrators who make good decisions at that level. I knew that once I quit professional sports, I would work in our Olympic movement to help India win Olympic medals.
In September 2015, I moved to New York to study Sports Management at Columbia University. This was the biggest risk of my life. I had limited funds and zero exposure to the US education system. Retirement from competitive sports at 25 is rare. But I knew I wanted to make a bigger impact on India’s Olympic movement.
I chose Columbia University because I wanted to learn from the best. The US sports industry was worth around USD $60 billion in 2014, and the US Olympic team was the best in the world (of course they still are). There was no doubt the sports administrators in the US were doing something right. I knew I would gain a lot by studying in an Ivy League school from the professors who are also sports business professionals with a class of diverse peer group. Columbia’s MS Sports Management program was the number two sports management course in the world at the time. The monetary investment in an Ivy League degree was worth it.
8. What did you do after graduating from Columbia?
After graduation, I worked at the US Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs. I also worked part time with the International Table Tennis Federation in the media team. I moved back to India in January 2017. While I was trying to find the right fit, I continued working part time with the ITTF to bring the best of table tennis to the world. I also worked in the CEAT Ultimate Table Tennis League as the Commentator and Presenter.
Last month, I finally found what I was looking for. I joined Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) as the Head, Partnerships and Communication. OGQ is a non-profit organization that supports India’s Olympic athletes in their journey to win Olympic medals. Five out of the eight medallists in the last two Olympic Games were athletes supported by OGQ. My everyday job is to raise funds for our Olympic athletes. Funds are used directly in the training and preparation of India’s Olympic athletes’ journey to the Olympic podium. I am now living a dream each day!
9. Was the environment for students studying Sports at Columbia different to an Indian University?
Big difference! Sports are encouraged in the US. The NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association, regulates athletes of more than 1,000 institutions and is professionally run. At the undergrad level, sports are an integral part of a student’s life in the US. There is a huge gap between sports participation at that level between India and US. In India, sports participation goes down at undergrad level, but in the US it only goes up. Most of the Olympians from US have played collegiate sports. India is far behind the US in this aspect.
10. What are some of the things that you think we need to do as a nation to support our young people in sports?
As a nation, we are far behind other countries as far as Olympic sports are concerned. There are more pressing problems of health, poverty, job security, women’s empowerment, infrastructure and many more that rank above sports.
However, I am a firm believer that sports can bring social change, and sports also teaches you so many lessons that are necessary and go beyond the four walls of a classroom. Every kid, irrespective of the regional difference, should play some sport in or outside of school. The idea of promoting sports in schools is the key.
Now that Col. Rajyavardhan Rathod, a 2004 Olympic Silver medalist, is the sports minister, the government is taking bigger steps like Khelo India, which is great for the grassroot development of sports in our country. We also need to have more role models like Saina, Sindhu and Mary Kom to encourage the youth and make them believe that anything is possible. At the professional level, we still struggle for funds, good coaches, sparring partners and correct planning, and that’s why India lags far behind countries that are not even a sixth of our population. For this we need experts and funds. But I am hopeful that things will change for Indian athletes in the years ahead!