Kimkim Khongsai, 11, made a clean sweep of all the gold medals in the women’s categories at the recent Manipur Hill Districts Badminton Championships. The tournament, featuring the best badminton players of all ages from the seven hill districts of Manipur, somehow saw an 11-year-old winning all the titles – leading local media to dub her the ‘Saina Nehwal of Kangpokpi’.
“I like Saina Nehwal but I don’t know who started this name for me. I like Saina Nehwal but I love the top players in the world like Tai-Tzu Ying and Nozomi Okuhara. I follow them on social media and keep waiting for their matches,” the new Manipuri sensation told The Bridge.
The hill district of Kangpokpi crushed the competition on the back of Kimkim’s special show last week – three gold medals in Under-15 Girls Singles, Under-15 Girls Doubles and Open Women’s Singles.
Also in the list of medallists at the event were Kimkim’s parents. Her mother Hoichong Khongsai won gold medals in 40+ Women’s Singles and 40+ Women’s Doubles and her father Jangkholim Khongsai won the silver medal in 55+ Men’s Doubles. Six medals won by one family!
But then, the Khongsais have always been known as a badminton-crazy family.
“We play every day, we have been doing this for at least 10 years. After work, all three of us go to play badminton in the stadium opposite our house in Imphal. We love playing, badminton is the best thing we could do together as a family,” said Hoichong Khongsai, Kimkim’s mother.
“There is too little badminton shown on TV, it’s mostly football or cricket. Whenever there is badminton on TV, our friends and family members message us. We try to never miss a match, all three of us watch it together,” she said.
Young Kimkim has been part of this badminton lifestyle from the age of five. Her talent was always clear to her family, but the Covid pandemic meant that they could not test her against top-quality players. A Thailand trip to play an invitational badminton tournament had to be scuttled two years ago.
In 2019, she had won the gold medal in the U-13 category in the Hill Districts Championship. Last year, she won the U19 singles title, beating players almost double her age. This year, she beat every woman in the seven hill districts of her state. The natural progression is hard to miss.
Next week, Kimkim will be travelling to New Delhi to participate in the U11 National Badminton Championship, her first all-India tournament.
A sweet spot in the hill-valley divide
Kimkim’s parents, both of whom work in government offices in Manipur, are less worried about how she will perform under pressure than they are about how long they can sustain their daughter’s career.
Boxer Sarita Devi, one of Manipur’s legendary sportspersons who has now stepped into a coaching role, said that players like Kimkim are one-in-a-million because of the hill-valley divide in the state.
“The best players – with inherent athletic ability – are from the hill districts of Manipur. But all the sports infrastructure and specialised training in our state is in the plains. Nobody is reaching out to the hills to find talents, and the people from the hills are too far away to try to come into mainstream sports centres in Imphal,” she said.
Even in the recent Manipur State Olympics, it were the valley districts – Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur – which won the most medals and the hill districts were left to win the scraps.
This is where Kimkim Khongsai is in a special position.
“We are privileged because we now live mostly in Imphal. Though we represent Kangpokpi in tournaments, we go there only during vacations. The state government is sponsoring part of the expenses needed for Kimkim’s Delhi trip,” said Hoichong, her mother.
“In Kangpokpi, it’s very different. There are many kids who want to play, but there are no facilities. Till date, there is no badminton stadium there. A sport like badminton is tough to pursue with no facilities. Even a F2 shuttlecock used in tournaments costs Rs 1800. There are local kids who can play well, but this expense is beyond them,” she added.
“The Hill Districts tournament had a 50-member badminton contingent from Kangpokpi. There was a lot of expense related to uniforms, registry, staying in messes. We went to offices and homes of ministers, MLAs, DCs, but there was not much use,” she said.
For now, Kangpokpi’s famous badminton-crazy family have an exciting ‘Saina Nehwal’ – or a ‘Tai Tzu’, as she would prefer to be called – on their hands, who promises to take Manipuri badminton into uncharted territory – not just into the valley districts or New Delhi’s U11 national championships.