While for most of us, the 2016 Rio Olympics seem like a lifetime away, with the dust finally having settled on London 2012, for hopeful athletes such as Prakash Vijayanath the new year marks his quest at becoming Africa’s number one in badminton player in time to secure automatic qualification for the Games in just over 18 months time.
Currently ranked third in Africa for men’s singles in badminton, the 19 year old moved to Dublin last year to study. Since then the Johannesburg native has had his most successful year to date, winning the South African National Men’s singles title while coming second in the All African Championships. Studying Computer Science and Business here at Trinity College, Vijayanath is living and training at Badminton Ireland’s high performance centre at Marino. The centre, which is home to many of Ireland’s own Olympic contenders, sees athletes live and train there under the likes of Daniel Magee, the country’s national coach for badminton and previous national champion in men’s doubles.
Speaking about 2013, Vijayanath still seems utterly surprised at how the year panned out for him. “I just really didn’t expect to do so well in both of those tournaments [the South African Nationals and the All African Championships],” he says. I think it was all the training that paid off for me. For the African Championships I didn’t think I’d even make it past the quarter-finals. It’s always been a difficult tournament and to make finals, I’m really happy but I do want to do better this coming year. Even for nationals, I hope to regain my title.”
While Vijayanath is ranked third in Africa at the moment, reaching number one on the continent would guarantee automatic qualification for Rio 2016, a feat which the South African feels is well within his reach. “I mean the difference in the world rankings between the number two, the number one and me is really small. Even if I play just one extra tournament I could get it,” he explains.
This year Vijayanath is set to play around ten tournaments, which will see him travel everywhere from Uganda, Romania and Portugal, with most happening during college term. Luckily however, training and tournaments haven’t seemed to inflict that much on the junior freshman’s study: “every tournament is about a week long so that’s a week off college. It can be tough at times but fortunately most things are online while lecturers have been accommodating. My training programme is also very flexible and at the moment it’s not too bad. I think when it comes closer to the exams I might have to cut it down a little bit.”
“The Commonwealth Games will be really tough, it’s one level below the Olympics and there are really good players going through it. The world number one from Malaysia, he’ll be in it. The top Indian players will be there, the top English and the Scottish will be there. I could do well, I could make the quarter-finals, depending on how good of a draw I get.”
With this January marking Vijayanath’s first year in Ireland, I ask how he’s found the last few months in the country’s capital. “The weather is a bit of a problem”, he laughs, “it’s a bit cold but other than that, the people are very friendly. I’m enjoying it.” Vijayanath was lucky enough to miss much of the windstorms that hit Ireland over the Christmas period, returning home to South Africa to participate in a tournament in December, as well as visit his family who are still living there. “They’re really looking forward to visiting me here,” he says. “The first week when you come back from South Africa having been there for a few weeks can be very hard but after that you get used to it, you get back into training and your routine.” I’m informed that Vijayanath’s family are planning on visiting him either before or during the Commonwealth Games this summer in Glasgow. Held every four years, the Games sees athletes from the Commonwealth nations compete, with the tournament described as the third largest multi-sport event in the world, just behind the Olympics and the Asian Games. Born in India, the country’s previous status in the British Empire allows Vijayanath to participate in the hugely competitive tournament. He explains “the Commonwealth Games will be really tough, it’s one level below the Olympics and there are really good players going through it. The world number one from Malaysia, he’ll be in it. The top Indian players will be there, the top English and the Scottish will be there. I could do well, I could make the quarter-finals, depending on how good of a draw I get.”
Talking to Vijayanath, what appears central to his progression and success over the past twelve months was his decision not only to move to Ireland, but to enter Badminton Ireland’s high performance centre in Marino, which saw him concentrate purely on national tournaments. While Vijayanath does play for the college team when he can, taking part at club level has been completely ruled out. “I live and train there [in Marino] which is very handy,” he says. There are loads of people in the academy but in the high performance, there’s about eight of us, with six of us living and training there.
“Currently ranked third in Africa for men’s singles in badminton, the 19 year old moved to Dublin last year to study. Since then the Johannesburg native has had his most successful year to date, winning the South African National Men’s singles title while coming second in the All African Championships.”
It’s been so beneficial to move here. I think the standard here in Ireland is definitely better than at home. The training has been better, the coaching staff here are really good, even the players I get to play against at my level are of a much higher standard so I’m always improving.” Badminton South Africa (BSA) currently lacks a national training centre although the BSA Board recently approved setting up a centre in the city of Pretoria.
While clearly invaluable to his game, living and training at the same institute does take its toll, with Vijayanath admitting “it can get a little intense. All my roommates train with me, they’re all high performance players like me. It does get a bit too much badminton focused sometimes but thankfully at the weekends they go home and I normally go off somewhere with my friends.”
With a busy few months in store for Vijayanath, his focus remains firmly on making it to Rio 2016, ideally through automatic qualification by gaining Africa’s number one spot. If not, he will probably have to be in the world’s top 50 or 60. He explains “it will be really tough though because the number one guy from Africa is South African and normally they don’t take two people from the same country, unless its China or Japan or one of the other top countries.”
Indeed a busy few months ahead for Vijayanath, yet he remains both optimistic and determined on achieving his Olympic dream. “The cut off date for Olympic qualification is May 2016,” he states “while the starting date for the qualifying period is May 2015 so we have exactly one year and in that year we have to do really well.”