“This gold is just the start, I want to touch 80 metres”
Like Neeraj Chopra post the Tokyo Olympics, Sumit Antil is a busy man after returning to India with a gold medal from the Tokyo Paralympics. Functions, felicitations, and top government officials dropping by to his home in Khewra village in Sonipat is now a daily affair.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Antil said over the phone.
But while he is soaking in all the adulation, the 23-year-old, who made the Tokyo Paralympics javelin throw F64 final his own with three world record throws en route to his gold with a 68.55m effort, wants to get back to his javelin in the next fortnight. “Now, I’m more excited than ever before to get back to the ground," Antil, whose left leg had to be amputated after a traffic accident in 2015, said.
Excerpts from an interview:
Out of your three world record throws, which was the most satisfying?
The first throw. My competitors felt the pressure of it. It boosted my confidence as well, because I thought if the first throw is this good, I will surely do better. I didn’t even put a lot of power behind it. I thought I’ll only concentrate on the technique and measure myself in it. But it was a world record. That throw opened me up.
You'd mentioned earlier that you were confident of bettering your own previous world mark in Tokyo. But it's a stage where even the best can falter. How did you keep that pressure at bay?
There was pressure because people expected a lot from me. For two nights straight, I didn’t sleep; maybe an hour max. I was tense. But when I woke up—got up from bed, that is, because I never slept—on the day of the final, I thought, "today is the day for which you’ve struggled so much, for which you left everything aside, for which you went through so much pain". I can’t even tell you how much pain I’ve gone through; I reached my limit. So I felt like today was the day to ensure all that pain doesn’t go in vain. I boosted myself like that. And when I came to know that I'll be the first one to throw, normally it can make one nervous. But I was excited. The entire day I was only waiting for the clock to strike 7 (pm, Tokyo time when the final was held).
Speaking of pain, how difficult was it for you to adjust to the prosthetic leg in your day-to-day routine first?
I first used a prosthetic leg in April 2016, months after my accident. Initially, I couldn’t wear it for more than 15 minutes. Then gradually it increased to one hour, then two, then three. It’s recommended that it shouldn’t be worn beyond that at a stretch. So I would think, "what can I even do in two-three hours?" The pain would often be unbearable. One day while returning from college, I got down from the bus but I couldn’t even walk towards the side of the road. My brother had to put me on his bike from the middle of the road itself. And that pain can come in various forms—the heat can create ulcers, do some internal damage and bleeding. Mine is a grafted skin between the thigh and leg, which makes it all the more difficult.
And then you had to learn to become an athlete with it…
It took a lot of time adjusting to different legs. Initially, I would use the normal ones, because we couldn’t afford the branded ones. For my family to put in R5-6 lakh for it was not easy. And there's no guarantee on how long it can last. Till 2018, I competed with the normal leg. From 2019, when I was drafted into TOPS, I began using the ones used by the elite athletes. Even in that, there are plenty of variations, so to zero in on the one that suits me the most took me two years. It was only towards the end of 2020 that I knew which leg is best for me.
The build of your upper body reflects your wrestling days growing up. How beneficial is that in your javelin throw?
It’s very helpful. Any athlete, whatever he has played and worked on in his growing up days, will get the benefit of it, no matter which sport he or she picks later. Even the two years in between after my accident, I tried working out as much as possible. I had become fat, and for a wrestler it’s the worst nightmare. So I started feeling guilty, telling myself, ‘look at you, you’re getting fat’. I guess that attitude kept me in sports. Then I decided to leave my studies and focus on sports. That was the most crucial decision of my life.
What made you take that decision at a time when you didn’t even know what para sports was?
Yes, I didn’t know it back then. Someone in my village told me about it. He said you have good height and weight and your muscles are also well-tuned, so why don’t you try getting into para sports. So I went to the stadium just to check it out, before I met Virender Dhankhar and Naval Singh (his coaches). Initially I would look at the javelin and feel, "this is so easy, I can throw it aaram se". But gradually I realised how tough it is.
When a life changes like yours did after the accident, how do you react? Most of our athletes recalled going into a shell initially...
When something like this happens all of a sudden, and I’ve felt it myself, a person wants to be alone. Because people show you sympathy, using terms like "bechara" and "yeh toh jawan tha (he was young)". That hurts. Even after I wore a prosthetic leg and would walk properly, people would glance downwards just to see which leg was artificial. And I would think—why are they even looking there? Those things stick with you. To overcome such things is very difficult. And to do it on a ground is all the more challenging, because invariably everyone looks at your leg first. It’s changing now. Being a para athlete in 2017 was very different to being a para athlete in 2021.
I’ve seen a lot people drift towards addiction or go into depression after such accidents. Because they feel their life is worthless. For a moment even I felt like that, "ki ya toh khatam kar lo ya aise jeene ki aadat daal lo (either end things or get used to living like this)". But that’s where my family support mattered a lot. It’s because of them that I could come out of that phase quickly and get into sports.
Looking at future goals now, what have you set yourself? You are close to the 70m mark, so is 75-80m the next target?
I’m not happy with one gold. I have a lot of years left in the sport. The Asian Para Games is a big target now—that’s the medal I don’t have (Antil finished 5th in 2018). So I want to win a medal there next year, and again a gold. In terms of metres, the aim now goes to 75m. My coach and I set aims every year in terms of metres, and have managed to achieve almost each one of it. I want to touch the 80m mark. That's when I will feel like I have achieved something as a para athlete. This gold medal is just the start.
The likes of Chopra, you, Devendra Jhajharia have taken javelin throw to an unprecedented high in India. Where do you see it heading?
Aaj, bacha bacha janta hai humein (Today, every kid knows us). In wrestling, for example, look at what Sushil Kumar did to its popularity, then Yogeshwar Dutt and now Bajrang Punia is carrying it forward. Similarly, Neeraj started that for javelin throw when he broke the U-20 world record. From there, it picked up. And now I believe javelin throw will grow exponentially in India. In the future, I hope India becomes a hub for javelin throw. I saw an article in Japan about Neeraj and me, and the headline read, “Javelin+India=Gold”. That struck me.
How much do you see the overall para movement changing in India post the Tokyo show?
To win 19 medals in a single Paralympics is just incredible. Earlier, I would hear things like there is no competition in para sports and that they just come and win. I don’t hear that anymore. People respect us now. That’s the biggest change.