INTERVIEW: Olympic gold, world championship my goals, says 'Arjuna' winning paddler Sreeja Akula

All of 24, Sreeja doesn't come across as someone who won so many laurels, thanks to her humble demeanour

Sreeja Akula

HYDERABAD: When her sister joined a famous coaching centre for intermediate and was passing through the rough and tumble of studies, young Sreeja Akula realised that it's not gonna be her cup of tea. Dame luck smiled on her in the form of her parents who were ready to sacrifice anything for the kids. Sreeja's sister, Ravali, who excelled in Table Tennis up to school level, had to drop out of the sport with the rigmarole of education.

Annoyed by the turn of events that drew her into education, Ravali, now with Microsoft as a techie, dissuaded her sister from getting into the grind of corporate colleges. While that was the seed that sprouted into an undying quest, Sreeja Akula stands in front of all with a winner's glee, minus the swag, and a heavy memento of the prestigious Arjuna Award, as a national champion. Latest win that adorned her cap of feathers is the Commonwealth-2022 mixed doubles gold medal.

Sreeja's father, Praveen Kumar, quit his safe government job to join a managerial position in a private insurance firm and her mother, Sai Sudha, who works in the Life Insurance Corporation to help their daughter to be taken for coaching and also arrange for her training and allied needs. Sai Sudha and Praveen Kumar also took turns in helping Sreeja go for coaching.

All of 24, Sreeja doesn't come across as someone who won so many laurels, thanks to her humble demeanour.

Excerpts from Sreeja Akula's exclusive interview to NewsTAP:

Q1. When did you first start playing?

I started playing in 2007, when I was in 4th grade. Following the footsteps of my sister, I started playing Table Tennis in my school and eventually I fell in love with the sport. After my sister had to discontinue professional training, she encouraged me to pursue it and my parents supported me day in and day out.

Q2. Where did you do your schooling and further studies?

I did my entire schooling in Hyderabad. First Rosary Convent School and intermediate in Badruka College. I discontinued my education as I got a job as Assistant Manager in Reserve Bank of India. I do not have to go to the office and I am able to shift my entire focus on Table Tennis.

Q3. How many hours do you spend in a day on Table Tennis and where? How do you spend your leisure time?

I spend around seven hours a day practising Table Tennis. I train at Somnath Ghosh UTT Academy in KPHB, under my coach Somnath Ghosh.

Apart from that, I also do fitness training like running, cardio etc. Since my focus is entirely on the sport, I do not deviate from practice. Apart from TT, I am a spiritual person and spend my free time reading (or listening to) the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Q4. What is your diet? Do you have someone who manages your diet?

For breakfast, I eat regular breakfast dishes like idlis. I also eat eggs in the morning. For lunch I eat quinoa, or millets or other superfoods. I eat chicken for protein twice or thrice a week. Throughout the day, I keep eating dry fruits and drink protein shakes.

I have a dietician who advises me on what to eat depending on the amount of practice and physical training that I do.

Apart from a dietitian, I also have a counsellor who helps me be focused and have the mental strength required for the sport.

Q5. What was your first win?

My first national win was at the TT Cadet tournament in Chennai, which was organised by the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI). This was in the under-12 category. I won many national titles in the sub-junior category. I became No.1 in India, in senior category, in 2022.

Q6. How many countries have you been to?

For international matches, I have travelled to around 25 countries, mostly European countries like Croatia.

My favourite places so far were Granada in Spain and Slovenia. I really liked the scenic beauty of the places.

Q7. What is your goal? What are your upcoming big tournaments?

I want to bag the Olympic Gold and gain the title of World Champion. Since I can play for another 8-10 years (till I turn 30-35), I am positive that I will be able to achieve it.

I am going to the US on December 10 from a qualifier match in Nepal. The match would be an entry into the Asian Championship and I would soon be playing in the World Championship too.

Q8. How do you feel about receiving the Arjuna Award?

It was a very proud moment for me, my coach and my family. There aren't words to describe the amount of happiness the award brought with itself. I am the second Arjuna Award winner from Hyderabad for Table Tennis. First was Mir Khasim Ali who won the award in 1969. The award is a motivation for me to work harder and achieve more through the sport.

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