What does it take to be a para athlete?

Published on Sep 02, 2021 09:59 PM IST

Fighting against trauma, isolation, social perceptions, lack of accessibility and re-learning how to use their bodies, sports is both a refuge and a field of dreams for India's paralympians.

Sundar Singh Gurjar of India in action(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Sundar Singh Gurjar of India in action(REUTERS)
ByRutvick Mehta, Avishek Roy

Sundar Singh Gurjar has seen both sides of the world. Selected in the Rajasthan State Sports Council, Gurjar had started to win medals at the national age-group level in javelin throw with a steely determination to join the Army. That’s until an iron sheet slid through his left hand, forcing it to be cut off.

“It felt like my entire world ended right there,” Gurjar recalled of that incident in 2015, when he was 19 and helping his friend bring down those sheets in his house in Jaipur. “From a man destined to be a fauji (armyman), I turned into a bechara for people.”

Gurjar also subsequently turned into a para-athlete from an able-bodied one. It took almost a year for him to process that fact, so also for his body. “Even though I had lost my left hand, which was my non-throwing arm, I felt like I was in control of things as an able-bodied athlete. Suddenly, I had to first fight with my mind, then fight with my body, then fight to prepare my body to become an athlete again, and then finally fight on the ground,” Gurjar said.

Gurjar’s fight, which led him to a Paralympic bronze in the javelin throw F46 event in Tokyo, exemplifies what almost every para-athlete has to conquer—from within and outside. It’s a battle with the demons in the mind, with a society that remains largely unsure of how to treat differently-abled people, and an environment that still screams for more accessibility.

Every Indian Paralympian who has won a medal (10 and counting) in Tokyo, and indeed even those who haven’t, has gone through different stages of that battle. Some in sorrow, some in hope, some even in anger.

Like Avani Lekhara, the 19-year-old shooter who is India’s first woman Paralympian to win gold. Lekhara was your quintessential bright girl in school—she would study well and dance well. A road accident in 2012 that damaged her spinal cord and left her paraylsed from the waist down confined her to a wheelchair. “I was very angry at my physical condition. It caused severe mental agony,” she said.

Lekhara wrapped herself into a cocoon, finding little interest in anything anymore. The girl went from learning new dance steps to learning how to sit on a wheelchair. “It was like teaching everything new to a kid,” her father Praveen said. It took one book—Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography, A Shot At History—and plenty of resolve from her father to get Lekhara attracted to something again: shooting.

The role of a close support system, be it parents, family or friends, that helps rebuild a mind coping with a disabled body is critical. Ask Devendra Jhajharia.

India might not have known its greatest Paralympian if it was left to a few men of his village in Churu, Rajasthan. With his left hand amputated after touching an electric wire, a nine-year-old Jhajharia went to a ground to play. He was denied entry. “They said, ‘Aapka kya kaam hai idhar? Aap padhai karo (What will you do here? You go study)’. The ground is of no use for you,” Jhajharia, now 40 and India's most successful Paralympian with two gold (Athens 2004 and Rio 2016) and on silver (Tokyo) in javelin, said.

“Imagine the feeling of a kid in that small village without one arm, who would not dare step out of his house because he didn’t know what people would say to him,” he added. “But my parents pushed me out of the four walls of our house, saying, ‘Nothing has happened to you. You go out and play elsewhere’.”

Years passed as Jhajharia did that, but people’s perception towards his disability didn’t move on. This was before the 2004 Athens Paralympics, when Jhajharia won the first of his two gold medals, and certainly before 2021, when the awareness and respect towards para-athletes is on an unprecedented rise. Jhajharia was to compete in a national tournament with able-bodied javelin throwers when he overheard a coaches’ conversation about him.

“They were saying, ‘He must have come through some connection. Haat bhi nahi hai phir bhi nationals khelne aa gaya (He doesn’t even have a hand and has come to compete). I still remember every word of it. The next day, I won a medal. The same people then came up to me and apologised for the things they said. I told them, ‘It doesn’t bother me. I am used to hearing such things now’. But deep down, it disturbs you,” Jhajharia said.

Sumit Antil was similarly disturbed. Like Gurjar, the man from Sonipat had just one goal: get into the Army and follow his late father, who was in the Air Force, in serving the nation. A bike accident in 2015 crushed his left leg, and with it his dreams of joining the Army. “I hit the lowest point mentally during that period. It broke my dreams, and it broke me along with it,” Antil said, painting a contrasting picture to the man who had broken three world records en route to winning gold in the F64 javelin throw in Tokyo.

They might be watched and followed by millions now but back then, cutting off from the world seemed like the only logical reaction in dealing with the situation for most of them. Gurjar would lock himself up in his hostel room in Jaipur for days together after his accident. “Whenever I spoke to people, they would talk about my incident and feel sad. It was like an endless cycle of pity. So, I decided to not meet anyone, talk to anyone and just stay in my room. I only spoke to my coach and a couple of close friends. If they weren’t there, God knows what I would have done,” Gurjar said.

Antil, 23, had his mother pull him out of that state and push him into sports. In 2016, he was fitted with a prosthetic leg, one that costs anywhere between R5-6 lakh and has to be imported from Germany. That's just the beginning. Antil then had to go through a painful process that took two or more months, to learn how to move with his artificial limb.

Only after that was Antil able to take baby steps in javelin throw—which he instantly fell in love with in 2017. Due to the sheer intensity of his sport, that leg can often get damaged. Naval Singh, Antil’s coach in Delhi, said Antil has changed 5-6 legs in the last three years alone. “It takes time for the new leg to adjust to skin and it can lead to bruises in the skin if the body weight increases even slightly or if it gets tighter,” Singh said.

“The artificial leg is his left leg, the blocking leg. The entire body weight comes onto his artificial leg. At times, the prosthetic is not able to withstand that load and gets damaged,” he added.

It’s what happened at the Indian Grand Prix in March, where Antil had a best throw of 66.43m while competing in an able-bodied field that also included Neeraj Chopra. “After the second throw, he (Antil) told me that the leg was not holding up and was damaged. He had to withdraw after three throws. And again, we had to start using a new leg ahead of the Paralympics,” Singh said.

During another domestic event earlier this year, Antil encountered constant bleeding at the amputation site where the artificial limb is attached because of the force he was exerting. “Not a day went by when my leg wouldn’t pain,” Antil said.

Yogesh Kathuniya, 24, could well relate to that pain. Suffering from quadriparesis—a neurological condition in which a person has debilitating muscle weakness in all four limbs—the discus thrower from Delhi can barely sit on the throwing chair for longer than half an hour at a stretch. “While sitting and throwing, he cannot use the belt for a long time because it disrupts his blood circulation,” Singh, who also coaches Kathuniya, said.

Forget landing it far, merely holding the discus can be a tall order for him. “I have difficulties in gripping the discus, making the turn (for the throw). I have trained very hard to reach here,” Kathuniya, the silver-medallist of the F56 discus throw in Tokyo, said. Getting there was beyond the realm of reality for a young Kathuniya, who suffered a paralytic attack when he was eight years old and who would be ridiculed in school by his classmates due to his condition. “I never thought I would come into sports,” he said.

Yet, he did. So did Gurjar. So did Jhajharia. So did Lekhara. So did Antil. So did every para-athlete out there. Because it gives them what they believed was lost forever: an opportunity to follow their dreams.

“Once you get into para sports, it boosts the morale. It instills some sense of self-belief in you again,” Jhajharia said. “And that is all we want.”

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