The following was compiled by Columbia student Kelly Carroll
This post is another in a series from the Columbia University Sports Podcast, a 360-degree view of the sports business from the people leading it. Each podcast is approximately 35–45 minutes in length, and features industry insiders from all aspects of the business—from brand executives to startup founders to former MLB players—all talking about their work, the current state of the sports industry, and, more importantly, the future of the field.
With the Rio Olympics now here, we take a look back at Joe Favorito and Tom Richardson’s CUSP Show conversation with Columbia Sports Management’s very own Olympian, Neha Aggarwal. In 2008, Aggarwal represented India at the Beijing Olympics, competing in table tennis. Now a student at Columbia, she uses her Olympic experience as a lens by which to view sports and progress in her home country. Aggarwal also looks forward to the day when she can take these lessons back to India.
Dream big: When Aggarwal was just 12-years-old, growing up in New Delhi, she made the bold pronouncement that she would one day represent India in the Olympics. A former roller skater, she had previously become the under-10 national champion in the sport. She then moved to table tennis, training with her brother six to seven hours each day, including physical fitness exercises. At 14, just two years after announcing herself as a future Olympian, Aggarwal won the table tennis national championship. At 17, she became the number one player in India, paving her way to the Olympic qualifying tournament. “That’s what sport does to you,” Aggarwal says. “It gives you the power to dream big.”
The Olympic experience: Aggarwal moved on from the Olympic qualifying tournament by a narrow margin, coming out on top in a triple tiebreak. “I came back home and I had no clue what I had done,” she says. “When the news was out in the media, that’s when I realized, ‘this is big.’” Aggarwal’s accomplishment was huge news because New Delhi was not known for its sporting prowess—it could boast no national champions in two decades. When Aggarwal got to Beijing, and to the Opening Ceremonies, she remembers having to pinch herself while walking through the now famous Bird’s Nest. “At the end of the day,” she says, “going there on that big stage, the only player from India, along with the cream of Indian sport, at 18 years of age, it was a life-changing experience.”
Mentally prepared: Aggarwal worked with two psychologists to get her mind into Olympic shape. She would start with basic visualization—getting into the most relaxed state so that the subconscious mind could take over. Once things are stored there, Aggarwal says, everything comes naturally. “You imagine playing the perfect shot,” she adds. “You imagine the perfect setting, the court, the spectators, umpires, your coach, the athletes along with you, and you imagine yourself hitting the right shot the right way and winning the point and winning the match.” When training, Aggarwal would work on this visualization twice a day, better preparing herself for her physical practice. “Your mind feels that you’ve done it so many times before,” she says.
Progress and sport: Aggarwal calls the support of her parents a “courageous step,” because, at the time in India, it was unusual to invest so much in a child’s athletic dreams. In interviews, she was also always asked about her grades, questions she never understood because of their irrelevance to her sport. Now, according to Aggarwal, India is developing a more focused sporting culture—the media is enthusiastic about sports, and there are more corporate sponsorships to be had. “It’s a great time to be an athlete in India,” she explains. The country’s focus on women’s sports is changing as well, according to Aggarwal, particularly because of three women: Sania Mirza (tennis), Saina Nehwal (badminton), and (boxing). “These three women have totally transformed the way Indian women’s sports looks,” she says. “[They’re a] motivating factor for young women, and also for business professionals who want to invest in women’s sport…It used to be all about cricket and men, and now the scenario is changing.”
Giving back to India: In the long-term, Aggarwal would like to be involved in sports on the policy level. In the true Olympic spirit, she sees sports as a way to move forward, a way to inspire, and a way to change culture. Aggarwal is proud of the change she can already see in India, and looks forward to a time when she can contribute to that even more, in all developing countries. One of the things Aggarwal feels Indian sports can borrow from the U.S. is an NCAA-like college sports system, to help grassroots development of sports and athletes. She also thinks India can benefit by investing in marketing and creating fan experiences. “Most importantly, it’s giving importance to the fans,” she says. “It’s not really about winning or losing.”
Follow your passion: In bestowing her own Olympic advice, Aggarwal believes all people should follow their passion. “It’s a very clichéd statement,” she says, “but somewhere down the line we get really caught up with things like making money or doing lucrative things. I have followed my passion ever since I can remember, and that’s why I’m also here at Columbia.” Aggarwal adds that everyone trying to pursue his or her own goals should always dream big, like she did. “It’s scary,” she says, “but trust me, it’s worth the effort. Had I not dreamed of playing in the Olympics in 2002, I would have never done that.”
These were just some of the topics Neha Aggarwal discussed with Joe and Tom. The entire podcast, number 2 in the series, can be heard here.