Please tell us about yourself
Born and raised in New Delhi, India, 26 year old Neha Aggarwal has lived the life that most athletes can only dream of – to represent their country at the Olympics. Even though she is now retired as a professional player, table tennis remains very close to Neha’s heart, and she hopes to increase its popularity worldwide. Neha’s career not only took her all over India, but also to more than 40 countries. She hopes to use these experiences to make a splash in the sports business industry. To fully equip herself with the needed skills, Neha moved to the U.S. last fall to pursue a Masters degree in Sports Management at Columbia University after her Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in General Studies and Humanities from St.Stephen’s College
1. How has the transition from living in India to the U.S. been for you? Do you feel at home in New York?
Honestly, I had a very tough first two months in New York. More than the city, it was about the sudden transition from an athlete to a student. Going to classes, taking down notes, studying in the library, giving presentations, and just using a different skill set altogether was very challenging. It was hard initially, but now its been 7 months and I have been managing schoolwork well, learning new things each day at Columbia, and enjoying my experience in New York. It has been a great journey so far and I am thankful to my parents and family who have supported me always!
2. Great to hear that! Let’s talk a bit about your collegiate table tennis experience. You recently represented Columbia University at your first ever collegiate national championships. In fact, you had a great run making it to the semifinals of the Women’s Singles. Tell us about that experience.
As this was my first and last collegiate Nationals, I was raring to do well. Unfortunately, I hurt my back ten days before the tournament, so I could not train well. But overall, I was pleased with my performance. Although I lost in the semi finals, I loved each moment I spent playing competitive table tennis after so long. The Columbia Women’s Team finished 10th and the Coed team finished 11th. I had an amazing team and we all supported each other. I am highly impressed with NCTTA as they are all volunteers delivering a great product. I would like to thank and appreciate their efforts towards making this tournament successful. The facility was great. Moreover, live streaming on the ITTF’s YouTube channel and NCTTA’s website gave the tournament wide coverage. The venue facilities were all at par with international standards, and all the players had a great time. I am glad NCTTA is bringing all the U.S. collegiate table tennis athletes together, because sometimes, it is the participation that really matters!
3. Moving on … You recently interned at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Kuala Lumpur. Tell about why you wanted to do this, how you landed this internship, and how was the experience. Any lessons you brought home with you?
The ITTF’s media internship was my first ever “work experience” after quitting professional table tennis. Interestingly, after the Olympics, this was my best experience ever. I have to admit, I was rejected this internship last year, so this year, with an improved resume, I was determined to get it. Media is something that really interests me. At Kuala Lumpur, I handled ITTF’s social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat), wrote the featured article of the day for ITTF’s website, interviewed players and officials, and created innovative video content for ITTF’s various platforms. I was working 15-16 hours a day along with the entire media team headed by Matt Pound, ITTF’s Media and Promotions Manager. I loved experiencing the World Championships from a different perspective – not as an athlete, but as a part of the ITTF family. Those 8 days were invaluable, adding media skills to my persona. Additionally, I learned the role of media during such tournaments. Conducting a tournament, especially like the World Championships, is a very hard task, that the ITTF is doing brilliantly.
4. Let’s go back in time. Can you share with us how you got started with table tennis? How old were you, who introduced you to the sport, and what is it about table tennis that resonated with you?
I started playing table tennis at the age of 7. My brother, Vishal Aggarwal, introduced me to the sport. My parents were very supportive from Day 1 and encouraged both of us to train and work hard. Initially, I did not like table tennis too much, but I was always sincere and hardworking. Once I started winning in 2001 there was no looking back. Table tennis is a beautiful sport – a mix of technique, physical ability, skills, tactics, and strategy. The exposure and experiences that I got (and still do) playing the sport at the highest level has made me the person that I am today.
5. What equipment do you currently use?
Blade: TSP Reflex Action
Forehand rubber: Butterfly Tenergy 64
Backhand rubber: Tibhar Grass D. Tecs
6. How often do you currently play and train?
I am a regular with my fitness. School is hectic, but I try to practice twice a week.
7. Do you still have goals as a player, or do you see yourself staying connected with the sport in some other way?
I essentially quit professional table tennis because I wanted to work in the sports industry as an administrator. I am a die-hard table tennis lover at one hand and a passionate Indian at the other. I see myself, in my own capacity, spreading the popularity of the sport worldwide. My long term aim is to work towards making a positive change in the Indian sports landscape. We, a country of 1.2 billion people, have immense talent that needs to be nurtured well. I dream of India as being one of the top countries in the medal tally at the Olympics one day, and I am determined to work towards making this dream come true.
8. Honors and titles that you are most proud of:
Undoubtedly, my most major accomplishment is representing India at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The other tournament that is very close to my heart is the 2015 World Cadet Challenge held in the Dominican Republic where I represented Team Asia and won the gold medal in doubles and the silver medal in teams. I also led the Delhi team to win its historic first ever gold medal at the Indian National Championship in 2013.
9. What is the most memorable moment of your table tennis career so far?
The whole journey of qualifying for and then competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was definitely one of my most memorable days. My successful comeback in 2013 after a two year slump is also something that I am very proud of.(Writer’s note: In 2008, Neha was at the peak of her professional career. Ranked #1 female player in the country, she became the youngest to make the Women’s National team. However, things took a turn and in just two years she tumbled to #16 in the country. After reinventing herself in 2013, Neha came back strong to reclaim her spot on the national team.)
10. What has been or is your guiding philosophy as an athlete?
I truly believe that hard work along with smart work can do wonders for any individual working towards a goal. Believing in yourself, staying positive, and managing your time well (highly underrated trait) contribute immensely towards handling tough situations successfully and thriving despite adversity.
11. If you could spend one day to learn from someone that has inspired you (from the past or the present) as far as table tennis or life in general, what would you like to learn, who would it be, and why?
I believe that every experience, person, event, and situation in life always has something to offer and learn from. I draw inspiration from all these little things in life. My current experience at Columbia and New York is invaluable. I am learning a lot – not just sports business, but other aspects of life in general. A combination of all these, has made life challenging and exciting at the same time.
12. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
I am a big fan of my country’s Achanta Sharath Kamal. His achievements in the international arena have elevated the level of Indian table tennis. He has been a very influential person in my life. I admire him for not only his achievements on the court, but also for who he is as a person. I also love watching Ai Fukuhara and Dimitrij Ovtcharov playing.
13. Anything else that you would like to add?
U.S. is the best in the sports business industry with the best practices and best minds working together. U.S. is on top of the world in Olympic sports such as tennis, track, swimming, gymnastics, etc. Then, why not table tennis? I believe that the U.S. table tennis players should make the best use of the facilities and ideas that exist here and work hard to establish their supremacy in the international table tennis arena.
You are now in the sports management program at Columbia. What do you hope to take back to India from the experience?
Being a student at Columbia has been a life changing experience for me. Each day in class is a unique learning experience and I see myself better inclined towards my long term goal of bringing a positive change in the Indian Sports system. I am developing a diverse skill set that I will be able to apply back home. Moreover, the network that I will build here will help me bring more value to my career as a sports business professional. I have always looked at things from an athlete’s perspective and now through this program I am gaining an insight into the sports business world.