It had been just under a year since Palak Kohli had last been required to travel to compete at an international para badminton event. So, when the time came for her to dust off the suitcase and pack for what was to be her return to the tour, there was a lot she had forgotten how to do.

“I had lost touch with how to deal with it,” the Paralympian said in a telephonic interview with Scroll, with the hint of a giggle.

“Small things, like what to pack, what to put in the kitbag, how to deal with jet lag… there was excitement, but still some nervousness about if I’ve missed something. Luckily, I found an old travel checklist I had made many years ago on my phone.”

In June last year, Kohli was forced to undergo immediate surgery for a tumour detected on her left ankle. Since then, the 20-year-old had been biding her time, hoping, waiting, eager for her body to recover and allow her to get back to competitive ways. When the time came, she may have forgotten how to pack for a journey, but not how to play.

Last Saturday, at the Brazil Para Badminton International in Sao Paolo, Kohli bagged two bronze medals – in singles and women’s doubles along with Vaishnavi Puneyani – in her first event back on tour.

“I was very happy in that moment (standing on the podium),” said Kohli, whose left arm is under-developed since birth.

“It was a very good feeling of going step by step. After that tough period I went through during my surgery, the rehab and everything, there was a smile to go with the emotion. When you have done the hard work and have the zeal in you that you can do it, the challenges are too weak to stop you.

“It was definitely a good tournament to start off with. I’ve got a rhythm, it’s something I can work on now.”

Getting back on court – even if it is with a protective ankle brace – is where Kohli feels most at ease. But she’s still not completely back to her best, nor is she medically fit. The surgery was a success, but the gravity of the ailment has left a considerable impact on the youngster from Jalandhar.

“A test result showed that she had a bone tumour on her ankle and it had to be taken out immediately otherwise it could become cancerous,” national para badminton coach Gaurav Khanna told Scroll.

“Somehow, under all that stress she was diagnosed for some neuro condition too and she’s getting treatment for that as well.”

Khanna further explained that doctors have said Kohli needs to do a series of exercises and stretches daily for the rest of her life to conserve the strength of her legs. The prognosis for play, however, wasn’t great.

“They said that she should not continue with the sport,” Khanna added.

That remained a big struggle for Khanna and her parents. Regardless of what the doctors said, Kohli was adamant. She would turn up at the Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy once she was discharged.

“On many occasions I scolded her and sent her away from the academy. But her parents told me that she’s shutting the door and crying in her room. They asked me to at least just let her be in the academy. She’s an athlete who has played at the highest level, it’s not easy to just accept, and there is depression from staying away,” he said.

“But she’s a fighter. Every day she’d be sitting in the academy and doing something or the other. Some drills. She’d take a heavy racquet and do some wrist work, or sit on a chair and do wall practice.”

After spending six weeks on the bed, Kohli – still wheelchair-bound – longed to get back on court. She recalled sitting on the court in her wheelchair, working on a few core and upper-body exercises to keep up her strength. And then she started to practice her strokes.

“It was to ensure the touch of the racquet did not stop, but we also worked on a few strokes and developing some more skills,” she recalled.

“There were some different service strategies that we tried as well. There was a lot of different things we tried to help me finish rallies earlier. Managing practice was tricky, but I had people to support me, Welspun was there, the physios and coach, my parents and colleagues.”

Within the process of getting reacquainted with the racquet, she practiced her wristwork and polished her bag of tricks. It’s what gave her an advantage in Brazil.

“She has become very sharp with her strokes. She would use a lot of trick services and smashes and unexpected strokes and not let the opponent get any rhythm (in Brazil),” Khanna said.

Among the list of players she managed to beat en route the women’s singles S4 class bronze medal was top seed and current world No 3 Faustine Noel in the group stage, and compatriot Jyoti – the current world No 5 – in the quarter-final.

It was an impressive showing based on the subtleties of her wrist. Her movement though, is not the same. Once she got back on her feet after surgery, there was another rude surprise in store for her.

“The size of my left foot reduced,” Kohli said.

“Earlier I used to wear a size 6 shoe on both my feet. It’s still the same on the right but the left has gone down to 3.5.”

It’s an unforeseen development that will require Kohli to start working on her footwork afresh. Yet the coach exudes an air of confidence in his ward, certain that it’s a minor hurdle for her compared to the major health battle she has overcome.

Of course, she did have a great deal of support in the form of her own personalised cheerleading squad – her fellow trainees at the academy in Lucknow.

“There was a tournament coming up in Canada when my surgery happened, but everyone at the centre withdrew from it so that they could be with me,” Kohli said.

“They’d come see me every day, bring me juice, coconut water and all. We’d play cards, they’d tease me a bit… it was all in good fun just to divert my mind. They’d bring a speaker and we’d be listening to music.”

With another giggle, she added: “I used to make tea and coffee for the seniors during competitions. So, they’d say they will be missing that. When we were in Brazil, they’d tease me again, so I’d tell them, ‘pehle jo karte the wohi karo’ (make your tea the way you used to earlier when I wasn’t there).”

Khanna warns that the journey to the Paris 2024 Paralympics will be long and hard. Not just because of the competition, but because Kohli is still far from attaining full fitness. And then there is also the element of uncertainty, as the effects of the surgery are still to be overcome.

But in all the years that he has known the youngster, and especially after her exploits in South America, there is one thing he is sure of.

“At the end of the day, she proved that she can be back on court,” he said.

“She’s a fighter, she has come back. And she’s not going to stop. Right now, she was on the lowest rung of the podium, she’s not going to stop till she’s on the top.”

On July 2, last year, she had put a post on her social media accounts with a caption that read: “I won’t let anyone forget me… I will be back soon.”

She’s been true to her word.