Every morning Neeraj Yadav drives down from Khanpur, near Saket, to Jawaharlal Nehru (JLN) Stadium to practice athletics. He is wheelchair-bound and one of the five para-athletes who have qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics Games. It is six in the morning and the team begins lifting weights to warm up. Using only his upper body, Yadav powers through the heavy weights, at times out-performing the abled athletes.
The major athletics events for wheelchair-bound athletes are discus throw, javelin throw and shot-put. While 400 and 800 metre races are for those in the visually impaired and orthopaedic (limited arm, shoulder, hands) categories.
Sporting a muscular body and a tattoo on his left arm, Yadav, 31, at first glance, appears like any other sportsperson. However, it took him a year’s training to work on his body despite his disability. He has won gold at a number of state- and national and international- level athletic events.
“I had polio at birth. My parents visited many doctors to get me treated but I believe life had a plan for me. Initially, I played lawn tennis but moved to athletics,” said Yadav. He lives with his mother, wife and younger brother. Yadav married for love and says his wife is proud of his achievements.
Yadav has studied at Delhi University’s Bhagat Singh College and works as a vocational therapy trainer at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC). It was one of his colleagues at the centre who told him about joining a sports facility for the differently abled. “I liked playing tennis but the coaching is expensive. I then tried athletics and enjoyed. This will be my first Olympics attempt and I aim for a gold,” said Yadav .
Like Yadav, Pragya Ghildial, 33, Sandeep Singh, 22, Ankur Dhama and Ramkaran Singh qualified for the Rio Games this year and the final trials will be held in July.
Tall and lean, Sandeep Singh, at 22, is already an athletic star with his limited left arm. He has won three silvers at the Asian Games and a number of golds in state- and nationallevel athletic events. Originally from Hanuman Garh district in Rajasthan, Singh lives in South Extension-1. “I wasn’t good at studies; but I would take part in sports activities to keep away from academics, which is where I got noticed for the first time. I played for Delhi state and won a gold and there has been no looking back since,” said Singh, as he readies for his practice run. He missed the last two Olympic Games because of health issues, but he believes this time he is prepared to make it to the event.
“I qualified in A-category at the trials held in Dubai this March. I want to set a record in the Olympics. If not sports, I would have been helping in the family business. It came as a surprise to my parents, who never imagined that I could go this far in such a competitive field. I owe a lot of this to our coach here who took to training para-athletes out of sheer passion,” said Singh.
All of them attribute their success to coach Satyapal Singh. Singh, 38, is the sports director at Delhi University’s Acharya Narendra Dev College, but he spends his mornings and evenings training para-athletes free of cost at the stadium. There are 12 four-hour sessions per week, said Satyapal, a Dronacharya Awardee and a South Extension -1 resident.
“Five of them with severe disabilities have qualified for Rio. I pay out of my own pocket to go with them for national and international events. This is my passion,” said Satyapal who started para-coaching in 2007. He said earlier there was neither any knowledge about para-athletics nor were coaches available for them. Only a few could qualify for international events. “I studied about sports for the differently abled and came across some students at JLN looking for coaching. These athletes have immense potential which needs to be harnessed,” he said.
Competing at international events is important for Indian players to move further in the game. International players have a higher level of training with high-quality equipment and facilities available to them. But, Satyapal said that in India one has to get noticed first in order to avail facilities and sponsorship. He looks forward for the athletes trained by him to strike gold at the Olympics and is certain they will make a mark.