Please let us introduce you to Neha Aggarwal. Neha is a world class Table Tennis Player that represented India from 2001- 2014.
Through her career there have been many highlights; only woman to represent India in Table Tennis at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; reached No.1 ranking in India and No.18 in World Rankings and she’s won 80+ National and 40+ International Medals.
Since retiring from professional competition she undertook a Master’s Degree at Columbia University, New York, in Sports Management.
A highly intelligent woman. Her passion for sport has led her to her current position as Head of Partnerships and Communication at Olympic Gold Quest – a not-for-profit foundation which supports the training and preparation of India’s top athletes for the Olympic Games.
Hey Neha, welcome to Sportside – it’s wonderful to have you onboard! How are you?
Thanks for having me at Sportside. I’m doing well and I am excited to start this journey!
Amazing, we’re thrilled to hear that you are keeping well. Now some of our readers may know lots about you but, for the benefit of those who don’t, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I started playing Table Tennis when I was 7 years old and I would train for 5-6 hours every day apart from attending school.
In 2001 I won my first National Championship title in Under-14 category and since then I knew that I can have a career in Table Tennis and wanted to represent India at the Olympics someday.
In 2008, when I was 18 years old, I qualified for the Beijing Olympic Games and was the only woman to represent India in Table Tennis at the games.
I was also one of the youngest Indian Olympians in Beijing. Over the course of 14 years of representing India, I won 4 national championship titles and several international medals. Some of my key international achievements include gold medal at the 2005 World Cadet Challenge and 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games and two bronze medals at the 2013 Commonwealth Championships. I also represented India at the 2014 Asian Games.
I retired from competitive sport in 2015 and moved to New York to pursue my Master of Science degree in Sports Management from Columbia University, New York, USA. After graduation, I worked at the United States Olympic Committee and International Table Tennis Federation. I also worked as a commentator for ESPN, USATT and Ultimate Table Tennis League.
In early 2017, I moved back to India with a vision to make a difference in India’s Olympic movement and joined Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) where I Head Partnerships and Communication and manage the Paralympics program. At OGQ, we support the training of some of India’s most talented athletes with a mission to help them win Olympic Gold medals.
You are famed for your table tennis skills, and represented India at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, what was it that attracted you to table tennis in the first place?
Actually, I started playing Table tennis because of my brother. He first started playing TT in our school (we both went to the same school) and won a silver medal in a local tournament.
My parents were so happy with this win that they decided to put both of us in TT coaching. Initially, I did not like the sport too much, but I loved accompanying my brother in whatever he did.
I started going with him for training sessions and played along with him. I am a hard worker and thus I got an inclination to TT once I got better in it.
Slowly, I started winning medals at the national and international level and there was no looking back.
Being the only woman to represent India at table tennis must be a great honour? We can only begin to imagine how you must have felt when you realised that you had made it to the pinnacle of the sport you love!
Yes, I was the only woman in 2008 Beijing Olympics in the sport of Table Tennis.
It has certainly been the biggest honour of my life so far. My whole experience at Beijing was spectacular as its every athlete’s dream to be at the Olympics. I qualified for the Olympics in March 2008 in Hong Kong at the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament.
I beat two senior ranked & experienced players to qualify. When they announced my quota, I was so overjoyed and elated. The first thing I did was to call my parents and inform them.
Funnily, they did not understand the importance of the Olympics at that time but gradually did. At the airport, there were many people to welcome me home, including my family, my coach and all my practice partners.
While being the only woman to represent India at Olympic level must come as a great honour, is it also a source of concern? Why do you think that so few women have been able to break through that barrier?
Yes you are right, since 1988 (when TT was introduced at the Olympics) until 2016, each year there was only 1 woman participant from India.
In 2016, we had two and that was the first time ever for India. It will still take some more time for India to send more female athletes at the Olympics.
Largely, the perception is changing and if you notice in 2016 Rio Olympics, India won 2 medals, and both were won by women. I firmly believe that if given a level playing field, woman will outshine men.
We need to encourage more young girls to play sport and then give them the right training and avenues to succeed in their sport.
Do you think that more needs to be done across the world to encourage more women to pursue their sporting ambitions?
Yes absolutely. When I was in the US, I was surprised that the same was true for one of the most developed nations.
Due to my travels during my playing days, I got the opportunity to interact with women from all over the world and all of them felt the same, we must encourage more women to pursue their sporting ambitions.
Your talents don’t end when you leave the court, and you have recently completed your Masters in Sports Science from Columbia University.
What made you take the leap and apply your professional knowledge to your academic studies?
By 2014, I was pretty clear that I wanted to make a big difference in the way sport is administered in India.
Because a systematic change is required if we need to win more medals at the Olympics. We have the talent which is not nurtured well.
I was a good student and I knew that I needed to broaden my understanding of sports business and administration to be able to start a career in it.
Thus, I chose Columbia University, an IVY League institution. My degree at Columbia really helped me to make a smooth transition from being an athlete to a sports administrator and understand the finer aspects of how sports is governed in various counties, especially the US.
It sounds as though throughout all of these challenges, you were incredibly supported by your parents and friends.
What role did they play in your decision to pursue both your table tennis and academic ambitions?
Today whatever I have achieved, is because of my family’s support. My parents have sacrificed their entire life to give me all the required facilities, encouragement, vision and planning that I needed.
Even my brothers and my sister in law, all 3 of them have always put my interest before theirs. I would not have been here without their unconditional support. I am also blessed with a few wonderful friends who have always been by my side in both good and bad times.
Neha, you are clearly an incredibly dedicated individual and an inspiration to young women across the world.
Before we finish, do you have any final words for those who may be reading this and considering whether they want to pursue a career in the sport they love?
In my view, sport is the biggest enabler in life. It teaches you so many lessons which the four walls of a classroom cannot.
Some of the biggest lessons are how to accept success and defeat, how to work as a team, stay humble, passionate and work hard. Times are changing and one can also now earn a living through sport.
Winning a medal for your country and seeing your national flag go high is a great honour. I encourage everyone to pursue a career in the sport they love with all their dedication and sincere efforts.
Success will surely knock at your door.
Thanks so much for your time Neha. We can’t wait to see what the future holds!