Coronavirus outbreak strengthened bonds among Olympic athletes
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
The postponement of the Olympic games due to the novel coronavirus pandemic has left badminton players in limbo, as the international federation was going to announce the official list of the qualified athletes in April.
The 26-year-old Neslihan Yiğit, Turkey’s first badminton player to make it to the games, in 2012 is one of them.
Although Yiğit, an athlete of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s sport club, said she knows for sure she has qualified for the Olympics, the uncertainty due to the fact that the international federation has not yet decided how to proceed makes her uneasy.
However, looking very upbeat and jovial during an online interview, Yiğit told the Daily News that as they started to train at home, COVID-19 has strengthened the bonds among Turkish Olympic athletes from all branches.
Tell us about your career.
I started playing badminton when I was 9 years old. I’ve worked for the past 17 years with the same coach. He was my teacher in primary school, and he was the one who encouraged me to get into this sport.
It seems your trainer has played an important role in your career.
My family is from Adana, and after I was selected for the national team, my family ran into some difficulties, so my parents decided to leave Bursa and go back to Adana. My trainer said, “Where are you going? Neslihan has a lot to accomplish in front of her; I will do whatever it takes to support her.” And that’s what he did.
Badminton is not well-known in Turkey.
Indeed, people have started to learn more about it over the course of these past few years. Before, when I said I played badminton, no one would understand. I used to say it’s like tennis, the sport that Hülya Avşar [a popular celebrity] plays. The federation has organized a lot of activities in schools in the last few years; as a result, people know more about it.
Tell us how you made it to the 2012 Olympics?
I was 11 when I joined the national team, and this was a big surprise to everybody because it had been only two years since I had started, and I was the youngest in the national team for the under 15s. Again, at 16, I was the youngest to join the national team.
In 2012, neither I nor the federation had such an Olympic aspiration for me at that time. I started to go to the tournaments to gain experience but I started to outperform everybody else. I was 34th in the global rankings and qualified for the Olympic Games. Perhaps I was able to qualify simply because I did it to enjoy it – not with a specific target of making the Olympics. But I was extremely nervous in my very first game at the Olympics; I was shaking. I recall turning to my coach and asking him, “How am I going to serve?”
What did you feel when you heard about the decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games?
I was extremely sad. At the beginning of the outbreak, I really did not think it would last so long. And also, as the national team, we had no tournament left to play, and we knew that we will participate in the Olympics, but the final list was supposed to be announced in April.
Currently, I do not know how the international federation will proceed. Will we have to compete again to qualify, or will those who already qualified participate in the Games next year? This is not clear, and actually, it’s this uncertainty that also makes me a little bit uneasy.
But looking at the current situation, I feel like maybe it was a good decision. We are at home and we can’t do extra training. Nobody would want to go and compete with lower-level performances.
But obviously, I was really sad when I first heard it. I was at the top of my badminton career, and I wanted to go when I was feeling at the top of my performance. But then again, with the closure of training facilities, confinement at home and curfews, I feel the postponement was a good development.
Obviously I can’t maintain that top performance because I can’t do any training with the shuttlecock. But honestly, at the beginning of the year, I had said to myself that 2020 was going to be my year. That is not exactly the case, but I hope we will see better days.
How are you continuing currently?
Conditioning, endurance and strength are much more important than technique. Regardless of what happens, we don’t forget technique, but the moment you lose endurance, starting from zero can be more difficult. My trainer told me, “We need to be one step ahead during this period. In no way should we lose our strength and conditioning.”
Before the curfew was introduced (for the weekend of April 11-12), we brought all my training materials, like weights, home. I continue my training at home. So right now, I don’t think I am losing endurance or strength. I train every day for at least three hours at home. Before the curfew, I used to run on the track in the neighborhood when it used to be calm. Other than hitting the shuttlecock – the technique part – I can actually continue pretty much the same.
How is your relationship with other Olympic athletes?
We are all connected. I have several friends, not just from badminton, but from other sports, like karate or taekwondo. We try to challenge each other; sometimes a friend calls and says, “I don’t feel good today; should we train together online?” And so we then train together online. Sometimes, she calls and asks me, “How are you training today? Let me do the same.” I think I am more disciplined and organized. I wake up in the morning and after breakfast, start training. Afterward, I send my training video to my badminton group, telling them, “C’mon, guys, if you haven’t trained yet today, you can do these.” We are challenging each other because no one wants his or her performance to go down.
I realized during this period that no matter what sport we play, we support each other. We started challenges via social media; everyone makes the most difficult move and challenges others to do the same. I, for instance, started a challenge of who can jump higher than a tower made of toilet paper, and this has ignited a nice competition among us.
I think these conditions, that is, the current situation, has strengthened the bond between us and made us stronger. I really like it when we support each other. I didn’t know too many athletes from my club in other sports; now someone sends me a message telling me,
“Don’t be sorry; you can do it.”
We are going through difficult times, but at the same time, this has been a period which has strengthened our relations.
What else do you do?
I try to read. We have to eat at home, so I ordered some books about diet for athletes. And also together with my friends at my club, we do different activities. Last week, I was live on Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s sport channel doing exercises.
*Who is Neslihan Yiğit?
Born in 1994, Neslihan Yiğit became a silver medalist in singles and doubles at the U17 European Championship in 2009.
She competed in various international tournaments in singles and doubles and won titles in the years 2011-2012.
She qualified as the first-ever Turkish badminton player for the Olympics in 2012.
She won the gold medal in the singles event and the bronze medal with the national team at the 2013 Islamic Solidarity Games held in Indonesia. In June 2013, she won double gold medals in the women’s singles and doubles event at the Mersin Mediterranean Games.
She won a gold medal in the women’s single at the University European games in 2017 and Tarragona Mediterranean Games in 2018.
Most recently, she ranked first in the 2019 Bulgarian International Challenge and third in 2019 Maldives international Challenge.
She is coached by Çağatay Taşdemir and has been for the past five years with İBBSK, a multi-sports club of the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul.