A Life's Story
June 12, 2021
Grace on court and off
Wit and wisdom drove Chawla as both competitor and coach
By: Geoff Kirbyson
Pal Chawla was once one of the best junior badminton players in the world before turning his focus to coaching and seeing two of his students become both national Canadian champions and Olympians.
His impact as a coach was felt by countless players over his nearly half-century-long career, ranging from young children whacking balloons to recreational adult groups to competitive players, including Jaimie Dawson and Kara Solmundson, who participated in the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Olympics, respectively.
Chawla, 79, died last month after battling cancer. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Surinder, and their daughters, Ami and Puneet; sister Manjit Bajaj (Jag) and their children, Seema Bell (Steve) and Jaspal; and brother Archie Chawla (Pat) and their children, Sean and Tara.
Born in India in 1942, he immigrated to Canada in 1967, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Damon — also a badminton player and coach — who had crossed the ocean eight years earlier.
He took his first job as a badminton professional at the Wildewood Club that fall and after spending a year in Regina, became the head pro at the Winnipeg Winter Club in 1971, replacing his uncle. He held that position for the next four decades.
Chawla paved the way for his younger brother, Archie, to come to Winnipeg in early 1971. Archie started off at the Wildewood Club, too, before becoming an assistant to Pal, who was nine years older, at the Winter Club. Archie subsequently went on to coach squash, tennis and badminton at the Winnipeg Canoe Club in 1981 before returning to the Winter Club many years later.
Oddly enough, it took moving halfway around the world for Archie to really get to know his older brother.
"He was going to school in the city and he was gone most of the time. I played badminton in my courtyard as a seven-year-old. He was at the clubs and playing tournaments. I hardly ever saw him.
"In those days, if you could get away to the promised land, you did. Pal was very happy when he came here. The choice was to join the Indian Air Force or come to Winnipeg," he said.
They both went to school in the city of Amritsar but their first sporting aspirations didn’t involve a racquet and shuttlecock.
"We both wanted to play cricket, we didn’t want to play badminton. We went to a good school in the city and it didn’t have cricket," Archie said.
As a 17- and 18-year-old, Chawla competed against the best adult players in India and beat most of them. Some of them went on to win the Asian championships. He once stretched world No. 1 Erland Kops, from Denmark, in a gruelling three-game match and he reached the semi-finals of the All England Open, the world’s oldest badminton tournament and the de facto world championships.
"He had the potential to be one of the top players in the world. But during one match in 40-degree heat in Calcutta, he got heat stroke and he never came back to the level he was at," Archie said.
Even so, Chawla recovered sufficiently to make the Indian national team for the under-21 Asian championships in 1961, where they won gold in the team event over powerhouses Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and China.
Chawla’s dad, Bhagwan, was his first trainer and coach. He bought a motorcycle so he could make the road trips to watch his son play. He also rode a bicycle as a training tool for his son.
"My dad would take him running at six or seven in the morning. He would ride the bike and make Pal run behind him. Pal would finish his training and then take the train to go to school," Archie said.
If there was one word to describe Chawla’s style of play it was "graceful," according to former pupil, Tom Saunders.
"In a game that has come to stress aggression and power, watching Pal play was like watching a complex dance with his gentle, flowing movement and an emphasis on outwitting the opponent tactically rather than overpowering him with blunt force," he said.
After arriving in Canada, Chawla was regularly ranked in the top six in Canada — he won virtually every tournament in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and even won a silver medal at the Canada Winter Games during his year in Saskatchewan — until he quit playing singles in 1972.
When he retired from coaching in 2011, he was the longest-serving badminton professional in North America. He was recognized for his contributions to the game when he was inducted into the Badminton Canada Hall of Fame in 2016.
Dawson and Solmundson first caught the badminton bug from Chawla when they were kids. Dawson went on to win a junior national title with Chawla in his corner before going on to win a pair of senior national belts and represent Canada internationally for several years, winning gold at the 1995 Pan Am Games in Argentina, before qualifying for Atlanta in 1996.
"He was an extremely kind man but he also held you to task. He was very matter of fact about it. He’d say, ‘you can be better and you will be better. Next time you will be better. But you can’t be excellent at everything.’" Dawson said. "He didn’t give you the answer but he made the question crystal clear. So, I quit playing hockey in Grade 9. He was consistent with who he said that to. That was an applicable message to anybody who wasn’t going to be a full-time athlete, too."
Every so often, Chawla would deliver the hard message that convinced his young charges to change their lives.
"It would take 10 years to develop that trust from a five-year-old to a 15-year-old. He was the guy who said, ‘if you want to be really good, you’ve got to take this more seriously.’ He chose the moment to do it. He only asked it once," Dawson said.
Some of Chawla’s other top athletes included Tom Brown, Bonnie Brown, Nancy Fenwick, Jim Saunders, Raj Sharma, Shiva Sharma, Gigi Sharma, Shauna Filuk and Blair Filuk.
Despite the many accolades directed his way, Chawla did have a couple of flaws. First, it appears as though he may have invented "dad" jokes many years ago and insisted on telling them at banquets, particularly when in the vicinity of a microphone. And second, he needed his quick reflexes behind the wheel because his driving skills left much to be desired.
"I remember as a 14-year-old, choosing to take the tournament shuttle or a taxi instead of driving with Pal," Dawson said with a laugh.
Solmundson started taking lessons with Chawla when she was nine years old. She won a bronze medal at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
"Pal was my first coach ever and he was really influential on me. He was so incredibly patient. When I think back, I recognize how unique that characteristic is. He was extremely kind, understanding and compassionate. Can you imagine teaching all of those kids?" she said.
"He made it fun. I will remember the kindness and patience he extended to all of us while teaching us new strokes and tactics. ‘Switch your thumb to get more power on your backhand.’ He will also be remembered for his tireless efforts not only coaching but organizing tournaments and ladders for players of all ages. I imagine the impact he had on athletes in the sport of badminton would be in the thousands and I count myself lucky to be among them."