Mouma Das has just returned home after helping the Indian women’s team to a historic gold at the 2016 World Team Table Tennis Championships in Malaysia. It’s the latest distinction in a long list of achievements for the 32-year-old Kolkata paddler, who holds the record for the most Commonwealth medals by an Indian player (17) and has taken part in the World Championships a record 15 times.

Strangely enough, table tennis happened to her by chance. “I was very dushtu (naughty) as a child,” smiled the diminutive Das. “Just to stop me from doing naughty things, my parents got me admitted to a club where I started table tennis. And over there, I started enjoying the game and regional tournaments. And that is where it all began.”

At the 2016 Championships, the Indian team did not lose a single game through the tournament, making the achievement even more impressive. After breezing past Puerto Rico in the quarter-finals, India faced a much higher-ranked Serbia in the semi-finals. India were 0-2 down at one stage but clawed back to 2-2 before Das won the decider to take India to the final. The team then defeated Luxembourg 3-1 in the finals to win gold.

Higher ground

By virtue of their performance, India will be competing in the Champions Division at the 2018 Championships only for the second time in their history. Das was there the last time the Indian team achieved this feat, back in 2004.

“It is difficult to compare the 2004 and 2016 campaigns,” said Das. “I was very young in 2004 and very much a junior member of the team. But this time, I was much more senior. There was a lot of responsibility on me to ensure that I guided the team properly. And because of the fantastic team members we had, we managed to achieve a historic landmark. “

Though she hopes to participate in the Champions Division in 2018, Das’ eyes are firmly trained on a closer and bigger prize, the Rio Olympics. Her next target is the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in April where she will be hoping to book an Olympic spot. Das is already an Olympian – she was one of the youngest participants at the 2004 edition.

“Because of the format then, I was only able to play one game there,” reminisced India’s number two table tennis player in the women’s rankings. “But playing in the Olympics was something I will never forget. It was a different experience altogether.”

Early influences

Much of her success has been down to the influence of her coaches. Das said that her first coach, Jayanta Pushilal, shaped her game in the early stages of her career.

And Pushilal is proud of his protégé. “Mouma is the only Olympian among the players I have coached,” said Pushilal. “Now, all I hope is that she makes it to the Olympics yet again, this year in Rio de Janiero. That would be a truly great achievement.”

Apart from Pushilal, Das said that another coach played a big role in her sustained success – Peter Engel from Germany. “There was one period in my career around 2013 when I went into a slump,” she said. “It was thanks to him [Engel] that I managed to come out of it. Apart from learning new techniques, it was his motivation that really helped me. He would always tell me not to doubt my game just because I was growing older and told me about world class players from Germany who continued to succeed at the game even at 35-36 and after having kids. He made me fall in love with the game again.”

Like India’s top male table tennis player Sharath Kamal, who got the opportunity to play in the European leagues, Das also received an offer to play in Spain. But she turned it town. “I am unable to stay alone, away from home,” Das said.

Even so, her advice to upcoming players is to go abroad and train.

“Things are really improving in India thanks to the Table Tennis Federation of India,” said Das. “But getting the chance to train abroad is incomparable. You learn so much by playing with and against the best players in the world. While you can learn the technicalities here, you can really improve the speed of your game when you train abroad.”