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Inspired by US programme, Aparna Popat bursting with ideas

Back from a unique sports mentoring programme in the US, nine-time national women’s singles champion Aparna Popat is brimming with excitement. “I don’t know where to start,” she says. “My brain is jammed with ideas.” The Global Sports Mentoring Programme was an initiative of the US Department of State and ESPNw, and implemented by the University of Tennessee. The programme – in which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took personal interest – was to create ‘sustainable sports opportunities for underserved women and girls worldwide’.

Aparna was one of 17 candidates shortlisted from a worldwide pool, who were selected based on their involvement with sports, and the ability to initiate change. Each shortlisted candidate was assigned to one mentor. Aparna, who is employed with Indian Oil Corporation and works on developing its sports policies and recruiting talent, was assigned to Samantha Johnson, Communications Director at Saatchi & Saatchi.

“It was an intensive programme. We worked non-stop for a month,” Aparna, now back in Mumbai, says. “The first five days were in Washington DC, where we were given basic information on how this programme works. We were assigned to one prominent woman each. They gave us an overall view of sport – how sport is used in social causes, in schools, colleges, how funds are raised, and so on. We learnt so much about how they use sport. They wanted to see how we could implement it in our own country. There were a lot of meetings and discussions of ideas.”

During the programme, they were taken to a live shoot of the Ellen Degeneres show (guests were Michael J Fox, LA Reid and ‘Gangnam Style’ sensation Psy). Towards the end, they were visited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The programme has already had a huge impact on Aparna. She is excited about the scope of change in India, about the impact established sportspeople can make. The mechanisms of transfer of knowledge and skills in India are still underdeveloped, and that’s something that has caught her attention.

“In the US, mentorship is big,” she says. “You pass on learnings from one generation to another, but in India, it’s only about coaching. There has to be other ways to help. There are so many problems in India, so any solution will work. They were so many learnings in one month.” With a reputation as one of India’s finest players and ambassadors of sport, the two-time Olympian can command an audience. “I’m open to suggestions,” she says. “I will start on this as soon as I work things out in my mind.”

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