Once top-class athletes cross the age of 30, their key ambition would usually change from aiming for the very pinnacle of their sport to prolonging their sporting careers.
Of course, there are the more fortunate ones who could find that extra drive and motivation to continue their sporting excellence after they cross the 30-year-old mark. And Indonesia’s badminton doubles specialist Greysia Polii is one of them.
The 33-year-old has been a national-team mainstay since 2003, compiling a trophy-laden career highlighted by an Asian Games and two SEA Games gold medals. In a measure of how long she has stayed at the top of her sport, those three golds are won between 2007 and 2019 with three different doubles partners.
And Greysia is showing no signs of stopping yet. Next month, she will be competing in her third straight Summer Olympics in Tokyo with her doubles partner, Apriyani Rahayu. And after winning the Thailand Open women’s doubles title in January, the duo are among the contenders for gold even as the badminton calendar is being massively disrupted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Winning the Thailand Open was a very meaningful achievement for us,” Greysia told Yahoo News Singapore in a recent email interview. “Apri and I really feel confident and encouraged, especially after a year of not competing due to the pandemic.
“The Thailand Open was our last top-tier tournament before the upcoming Olympics, and we will carry that confidence and passion to Tokyo.”
Numerous obstacles along the way
Yet, her career as an elite doubles shuttler could have been cut short after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Then, she was at the peak of her prowess with her doubles partner Nitya Krishinda Maheswari, winning the 2014 Asian Games gold and reaching No. 2 in the world rankings.
But Nitya suffered a career-ending knee injury after the Rio Games, and eventually retired from playing, leaving Greysia going back to square one and searching for another doubles partner.
It is never easy changing to a new doubles partner, especially after the heights she had reached with Nitya. It was therefore a stroke of fortune that she quickly found an ideal replacement in Apriyani, who is 10 years younger.
“It is a pleasant experience to team up with Apriyani. She's still young, full of passion, and that's what keeps me excited, too,” Greysia said.
“The first time we were paired together, our game just flowed naturally. She was willing to learn, and we were able to find a balance between our playing styles.”
Pairing up in May 2017, Greysia found a new lease of success immediately with Apriyani, winning the Thailand and French Opens that same year. The next three years were equally fruitful, as they won six more titles on the BWF World Tour circuit, as well as a SEA Games gold in the Philippines in 2019.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and most of the major badminton tournaments were cancelled, leaving shuttlers with precious few opportunities to hone their competitive skills.
Yet, Greysia found a way to make full use of this lull in competitions.
“I always try to think on the positive side, and the pandemic became a moment for me to take a break and get my mind refreshed,” she said.
“I have been playing badminton for many years, and this situation gives me a time to rest for a while and let go of all the pressure.”
Husband and fans provide support in pursuit of excellence
Another major development in her life also came amid the pandemic — she got married in last December to Felix Claudius Djimin, a director of a jewellery company.
Greysia credits her husband as an additional source of support when she competes, and his support becomes even more important as fans are being kept out of tournaments due to the stringent social distancing measures amid the pandemic.
This means that Greysia and Apriyani have not been able to be cheered on by the famously rabid Indonesia fans since the start of the pandemic. Greysia said she is going the extra mile to stay connected with them through various social media platforms.
“Indonesian badminton fans are the best in the world, their presence at the stadium is so valuable to us,” she said. “We can see their endless support through social media platforms, and we are utilising these channels more than ever to interact and connect with our fan base.”
With foreign fans unable to travel to Tokyo to support their countries’ athletes during the Olympics, Greysia and Apriyani look set to continue drawing inspiration from their fans via the digital and social media platforms.
And as she prepares for her third Olympic bow, Greysia is thankful for another chance to prove herself on the biggest sporting stage of all.
Her first Games outing in 2012 was marred by disqualification with three other doubles pairs due to lack of effort to win their matches, as the pairs tried to jostle for easier passages in the knockout stages. Four years later, her bid for gold with Nitya ended with a loss in the quarter-finals to China’s Tang Yuanting and Yu Yang.
And as she reaches the final years of her stellar career, Greysia continues to be inspired to reach for the heights, just as she did in her earlier peak years.
“Thank God I’m able to participate in the Olympics for a third time. It is a rare opportunity for badminton athletes,” she said.
“I feel really excited to be part of it, even though I haven't been able to bring home a medal in the previous two Games. This time, I hope to be able to achieve more for Indonesia.”
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