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Indian-American Medal Hopes at the Olympics

India West, News Feature, Ashfaque Swapan and Sunita Sohrabji Posted: Aug 08, 2008

Editor's Note: Two Indian-American athletes have made it into gymnastics and badminton in the Beijing Olympics.

Gymnast Raj Bhavsar Wins Spot in Beijing Olympics

by Ashfaque Swapan

After the heartbreak of missing an automatic spot on the U.S. Olympic team by nine-hundredths of a point, fate has at last smiled on Houston, Tex.-based gymnast Raj Bhavsar.Raj Bhavsar

Bhavsar, an Indian American alternate member, will replace Paul Hamm, who withdrew from the team July 28, on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team for men's gymnastics, pending approval by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Men's Selection Committee reached the decision July 28.

"This is a tremendous honor and the first feeling that comes to mind is that dreams can come true," said Bhavsar, 27, who was an alternate on the 2004 Olympic Team. "You never know when it will happen, but with enough positive intention and belief, it can. I am ready, willing and able to take on this great opportunity. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of a great athlete, Paul Hamm. My heart goes out to him. He did an admirable thing, and he will always be a hero in my eyes. I also want to recognize the other two alternates, who are an important part of the soul and spirit of this team."

For Bhavsar it has been a rollercoaster ride for eight years.

Earlier, he had missed getting an automatic spot in the team in the weighted average scores from Olympic trials and the national championships in Houston.

Essentially, he missed clinching by the margin of the few tenths of a point he lost in a fall on the pommel horse at the national championships recently.

He went to the Beijing Olympics as he did in Athens last time around as an alternate.

"'Bittersweet' is a perfect word for it," Bhavsar had told India-West during a phone interview from Houston earlier. "While I haven't closed the chapter on that, there is a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster going on. While I am disappointed that I didn't make the squad I'm still a part of the team as an alternate, which is an honor but at the same time I feel as if I (did my job)."

His former coach and much of the media were full of admiration.

"Raj was the star of the show," Bill Foster, his former coach and a member of the USA Gymnastics men's selection team, told the Houston Chronicle newspaper. "I was so proud of that guy. He was just amazing in every single aspect of what he did.

"His maturity (and) everything he has done this year impresses me."

Admiring reports have been pouring in from the press. In an earlier article headlined "Alternate or Not, Raj Shines," the Chronicle wrote that Bhavsar "can take solace in his role as the star of the Olympic trials, and that's from no less an authority than Bill Foster."

In another complimentary report on ESPN.com headlined "Whether or Not He reaches Olympics, Bhavsar in the Right Place," Alisha Ricardi, an editor at ESPN.com, wrote: "It turns out the only accomplishment Bhavsar wanted this week was to go out on there, 'rock out' his routines and have fun doing it. He said that's a dream he just lived out. "Namast, Raj."

Bhavsar told India-West the media recognition was gratifying. "This time around there has been a very large following for myself and the media has taken quite an interest in my comeback and my philosophy on life which is absolutely wonderful," he said.

At 27, he competed this year with much younger contestants, and he had returned after a hiatus, so he said he was "kind of an underdog." Yet he did well.

"Truth be told I actually did better than four years ago."

After the disappointment of being selected as an alternate in the last Olympics in Athens, Bhavsar took a break from gymnastics and rethought his approach. That helped.

"What I found was that my ability to have fun, my ability to enjoy the finer things in life, that never went away," he said.

"It started suddenly to dawn that if I can carry this same grounded approach for my next Olympic run then . . . no matter what happens I think I am going to be successful either way. The motivation finally came back. . . It's not so much about training every day in the gym and perfecting a routine, so much as it is about trying to be a good human being regardless of what happens in life."

Bhavsar agrees with the Olympic motto: "The important thing in the Olympics is not to win but to take part, just as in life the important thing is not the triumph but the struggle."

Bhavsar said that over the years he has learned not to obsess about one particular thing or the other.

"Probably the number one lesson that I learned out of all of this is that there is much more to being a great human being than getting in an Olympic team or winning a war or having a high-paying salary," Bhavsar told India-West.

As Bhavsar contemplates the future, he said while right now he is focused on Beijing, he is seriously considering a career in motivational speaking later.

"Currently, the last page of this book has not been turned yet. I am going to Beijing, maybe to compete, maybe not, but after that, after a long vacation I am thinking about a couple things," he said. "Public speaking is something that I have been interested in. . . I think many people can relate to my story.

"Many times in life we feel defeated and we take it personally and we give up the motivation we want to be successful . . . I want to tell my story, how I actually found the inner strength within me, and how I fell in love again to excel in something. . .

"I believe that if I can do this, so can you."

U.S. Badminton Olympic Gold Medal Hopes Hang on Raju Rai

By Sunita Sohrabji

Raju RaiAmerica's hope for a men's badminton singles' Olympics gold medal rests solely on the racket of Atlanta, Ga., native Raju Rai.

"It has been my dream since I was five years old to one day play in the Olympics," Rai told India-West on the eve of his flight to Beijing, where the Olympic Games will be played Aug. 8-24.

Olympic badminton players are chosen worldwide by ranking and must be one of the top 38 players in the world to play in the games. Rai is the only U.S. men's badminton singles' contender and one of two Indian Americans at this year's games.

"I know he's going to bring back a gold," Halim Ho, one of Rai's coaches, told India-West. "Raju always does better than his best," said Ho, who has coached Rai since 2005, along with Tony Gunawan and Rudy Gunawan.

Rai, 25, learned he had made the team on May 1 and immediately called his parents. "My family has been my support group ever since I started playing," he said from Orange, Calif., where he attends Santa Ana Community College and coaches badminton at the Orange County Badminton Club.

His mother Sandra Rai told India-West she knew even before her son told her. "I would check the rankings every week to see how other people were doing and try to figure out where Raju ranked," she said, adding that she knew he had made the team after a couple of really good matches in April.

"He's had a racket in his hand since he was a year-and-a-half old," Sandra Rai said, recalling how a visiting grandmother from India would play with her son, hitting balloons across the living room with a sawed-off racket that fit the little boy's hand.

Rai's father, Nachi, is an avid enthusiast of badminton and got the entire family involved. "I was playing when I was pregnant," said Sandra Rai.

Asked whether she believed her son could win a gold, Sandra Rai said: "We would love to see it, but it's going to be tough. The U.S. still lags behind Asian countries when it comes to badminton."

"But there are always those magical Olympian moments where someone goes on auto pilot and pulls out a medal," she added.

There were not many places to play badminton in Atlanta when Rai was growing up. So Rai continued to play with a racket and balloons, practicing in his living room.

His father Nachi took him to the Junior Nationals at the age of 11. Rai surprised his father and himself by winning the title. "I became really serious about the game then," he said.

Rai continued to compete and has won several golds at the 2005 and 2006 U.S. Nationals, the 2006 Boston Open, and the 2005 Pan American championships. He has been a Thomas Cup team member in 2005 and 2006 and was participating in a Badminton World Federation training program in Saarbrucken, Germany, when he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for several months.

"I had torn a hole in the cartilage of my right knee, but my doctors weren't able to figure it out for about six months. It was a really frustrating time for me," Rai told India-West, adding that he only had a year to qualify for the Olympics after he recovered from knee surgery.

Does Rai believe he can win a gold? "For me, any color medal would be fine," he said. "I'm just happy to be playing for the U.S. at the games."

The U.S. badminton team members for the 2008 Olympic Games who will compete in doubles and women's singles' events are: Howard Bach of San Francisco, Calif.; Eva Lee, of Orange, Calif.; Bob Malaythong of Rockville, Maryland; May Mangkalakiri of Garden Grove, Calif.; and Rai. Team results can be tracked online at www.usoc.org.

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