KOCHI: Think of sports stars from Sweden and names that come instantly to mind are Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bjorn Borg or Freddie Ljungberg. Sports like football and ice hockey hold sway in the Nordic country, but an 18-year-old with roots in Kerala might change all that.
Ashwathi Pillai is the daughter of Vinod and Gayathri Pillai, hailing from a village near Thucklay, 50 kms from Thiruvananthapuram. Ashwathi, a Swedish senior national champion in badminton now represents the country at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
The bout will begin in the Argentine capital on Sunday and Ashwathi is in Group C with Malaysian third seed Goh Jin Wei, Indonesia's Maharani Sekar Batari and Germany's Ann-Kathrin Spoeri. The top player from each of the eight groups will qualify for the quarterfinals and vie for medals.
"It is going to be a great experience for me to compete in such a big tournament. The idea is to gain exposure against top players and use that in future," said Ashwathi, who has clinched Sweden's U-13, U-15 and U-17 national championships after moving to the country with her parents when she was nine.
She is trained by Indonesian coach Rio Wilanto and Anders Kristiansen of Denmark at the Taby Badminton Club near Stockholm and National Centre, Uppsala. She also trains at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, Bengaluru, when she is in India on yearly vacation.
"My objective is to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I believe the Youth Olympics is a good step in that direction," she said. "We have great facilities here and I train for around 25 hours a week. I get the services of strength trainers and nutritionists from the Swedish National Sports Federation, " said Ashwathi who is funded by Sweden's Olympic programme.
"I started badminton when I was seven. I used to watch my father play during evenings and would join him once in a while. I started enjoying the sport and didn't want to stop training after moving to Sweden," said Ashwathi, who will also compete in the World Junior Championships in Canada later this year.
Badminton, like tennis, was once a popular sport in Sweden. The first ever BWF World Championship was held in the Swedish city of Malmo in 1977. "Badminton and tennis suffered as new sports came in. In tennis, Sweden hasn't had a big star since Borg and Stefan Edberg," said Vinod, an engineer who works for an IT services company.
"Badminton is slowly gaining popularity and the association and the government are pumping in a lot of money to produce someone like PV Sindhu or Saina Nehwal, who can revitalise the sport," said Vinod. Ashwathi could just be the one if she lives up to promise.
2018-Became the youngest to win the Swedish senior national championship.
2017- Reached quarterfinals of Bulgaria Open.
2016-Won silver in singles at Polish Junior International Championship.
2015-Gold medallist in singles at Swiss Junior Open.
2015-Became Swedish national champion in U-15 category