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Real heroes: India’s para cyclists

Harinder, who competes in the 20km time trial category, is tall and lean, with a full beard and a shock of unruly hair. He wears a prosthetic leg below his right knee, where the mine maimed him.

other sports Updated: Jun 11, 2019 22:23 IST
Ajai Masand
Ajai Masand
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India’s para cyclists,Para Olympics,Para Cyclists
Gurlal Singh, Sudhakar Maratha and Harinder Singh who have served in the Border Security Force (BSF) and have recently won medals in the 8th Asian Para-Cycling Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Heavy rain overnight had turned the forest trails into rivulets. An eight-member Border Security Force (BSF) patrol party was scouring the Krishna Ghati sector of Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir for intruders. It was 10am on November 30, 2012.

Soggy and shivering, they trudged through the thick foliage along the Line of Control (LoC). Constable Harinder Singh from Amritsar was a rookie then, having joined the BSF—in the face of stiff opposition from his family—just over a year back.

But he knew the perils of walking this trail only too well—this was one of the most heavily mined sections along the LOC, and Harinder had already witnessed several men from his patrol group lose limbs after landmine blasts. He had seen other patrol groups return to base with grievously wounded soldiers.

On this overcast day, it was Harinder who stepped on a mine. His right leg was blown off from below the knee. The next thing he remembers is being carried on the shoulders of his fellow soldiers.

“I could see blood spilling on their shirts as they negotiated the mountain trails,” Harinder says.

The group was on a lick of land surrounded on all three sides by the LOC, and at the sound of the blast, enemy fire began to come their way.

“But we couldn’t retaliate as it would have blown our cover barely 100 metres from LoC,” Harinder says, recalling the fateful day sitting on a comfortable sofa at the BSF Officers’ Mess in New Delhi.

“The rain had washed away the usual signs of a mine. Otherwise, I would have seen it.”

Harinder is now one of the country’s leading para-cyclists. In April, he finished fourth in the Asian Road Para-cycling Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan—a disappoinment, he said, because he had won the bronze at both the 2017 and 2018 editions.

“Next year, I’ll be trying for gold.”

Harinder, who competes in the 20km time trial category, is tall and lean, with a full beard and a shock of unruly hair. He wears a prosthetic leg below his right knee, where the mine maimed him.

“The real trauma started after recovery when I was not able to come to terms with the loss of a limb,” he says. “My four-year-old daughter asks me why I remove this contraption when I go to sleep,” he says, pointing to the prosthetic leg. “She still doesn’t know why I wear this.”

Harinder had never imagined being an athlete—after the incident, once his rehabilitation was over, he found himself with a post at the BSF canteen in Jammu.

Away from active duty, Harinder slipped into depression.

“I had no direction…I could not understand what I would do with my life,” Harinder says.

After almost three difficult years at the canteen trying to cope with his new reality, Harinder was sent for counselling to Ahmedabad, where he learnt of the Aditya Mehta Foundation (AMF), which works with wounded soldiers, identifying and training potential athletes in 22 sporting disciplines.

“I remember the first training camp in Panchkula in early 2016, a five-day affair. I was instantly hooked,” Harinder says. “The same year, I received my first professional training in Hyderabad. Being surrounded by people with similar disabilities gives me reason to set higher goals.”

A first since 1951

Harinder is not the only para-cyclist who picked up the sport after being injured in the line of duty. Gurlal Singh, who won a bronze in the 4km time trial at Tashkent in April, is also from the BSF. He cuts an imposing figure, standing over six feet tall. He lost his left leg while trying to save a fellow soldier who had been injured by a mine blast near the LOC.

That was back in the December of 2010; a bitterly cold evening where, trying to pull the injured soldier out in the difficult mountain terrain, Gurlal lost his footing and broke his ankle. It took more than five hours for the two jawans to reach a hospital from the remote post, allowing gangrene to set in.

“That day we had two casualties...my colleague lost both legs, and I lost my left leg,” Gurlal, now 39, says.

Gurlal too suffered from dejection, trying to fit into his new life as a bus conductor at his unit’s base in Amritsar.

“That was tough. After spending so many years on forward posts, I could not stand ground duty,” says Gurlal.

It was not before April, 2017 that Gurlal first learnt of AMF’s sports programme.

“I first tried my hand at handball and football before finally settling on cycling,” he says.

A year later, at the Asian Para Games at Jakarta in October, Gurlal became the first Indian cyclist since 1951 to win an Asian Games medal—a bronze in 4km time trial in C4 category (athletes with 60 per cent disability).

“On the front, I liked the fighting, the feeling of being part of a unit, that camaraderie between soldiers. It’s what I missed the most,” Gurlal, whose next target is the 2022 Para Asian Games, says. “Sports has once again brought that back into my life.”

Finding a way

India’s para cycling team has a total strength of 38, of whom 25 are soldiers from the Central Armed Police Forces—the seven paramilitary forces, including the BSF, that are under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Twenty-one of those soldiers were injured in the line of duty.

Sudhakar Marathe, a constable with the BSF and an international medal winner in the H5 Hand Cycling category, is not one of them, but it’s a miracle, he says, that he’s even alive.

In June 2017, he was part of the BSF Alpha Company headed for Srinagar from Jammu, travelling on an overcrowded train. Marathe decided he needed some fresh air, and went to stand next to the door.

“I was holding the handrail firmly but I slipped and, in a split second, I was lying on the adjoining track, unconscious,” he says.

A train ran over his legs. He was spotted by the Railway Protection Force near Udhampur and shifted to a hospital.

“My family had no idea about my fate. They knew something untoward had happened to someone but were unaware that it had happened to me,” says the 38-year-old from Maharashtra.

Marathe lost both legs. After his rehabilitation, he too came in contact with AMF last year.

“I was in Jammu, confined to a wheelchair and working in a CSD canteen, when I was picked by AMF and the Cycling Federation of India for training. It was my best day in a long time,” said the lively and light-hearted Marathe.

He recently also received prosthetic legs.

“I cannot walk still but am learning,” he says. “Like hand cycling, it’s completely new to me. I’ll find my way.”

First Published: Jun 11, 2019 22:22 IST