EACH ONE A CHAMPION
Reader's Digest India|October 2021
India’s para-athletes made history in Tokyo, but the story of how they got there is a true lesson in grit
Shail Desai

First, let the numbers sink in: India picked up five gold medals at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo this year. That’s more gold than ever won in the last 11 editions of the quadrennial event in which India participated. This year’s contingent featured 54 athletes. At Rio de Janeiro in 2016, there were only 19. And the previous best of four medals was bettered to 19 this time around—that number is also seven more than what India picked up since its first participation at the Paralympics in 1968.

It has, predictably, taken a medal haul to brings India’s para-athletes into the spotlight, but until even a few months ago, they were an invisible force, training in various arenas across the country, just as hard as their able-bodied counterparts.

For most of them, it’s been a story of perseverance—embarking on a journey of discovery that would test the limits of their abilities. But what they didn’t realize was an obvious truth—they became champions on the day they first stepped out on a sporting field.

SYSTEMS OF SUPPORT

There’s a common notion that runs in the world of sports—‘start ’em young’. Most world champions, we hear, picked up a racket or kicked a ball at about the same time they took their first wobbly steps. For para-athletes, though, this story is often different. Sharad Kumar, for instance, might well have won bronze in the high jump T42 category event, but the sport wasn’t the first, natural choice for him.

With crime syndicates making life perilous in Bihar’s Motipur, Kumar’s father, Surender, bundled him and his brother, Shallaz, off to St. Paul’s, a boarding school in Darjeeling, at a young age. After being administered a spurious polio drug at the age of two, Kumar’s left leg was left paralyzed and Shallaz had looked out for him since.

In Darjeeling, Kumar was exposed to nearly all sports and he played them all, but when it came to high jump, his only job was to set the bar for the other boys. “I would play everything, go on long hikes, even walk the entire marathon route, but the high jump was out of bounds. The other boys worried. I couldn’t afford to injure the one good leg that I have,” Kumar recalls.

One afternoon when his friends were away at lunch, Kumar pulled off a graceful Fosbury Flop all by himself. He ran to his brother, announcing his exploits. The following day, Kumar started training under Shallaz’s watchful eye, oblivious to others’ concerns. “You know how it is at boarding school—if you’re good at something, everyone respects you. I was never made to feel I was different.”

Like Kumar, archer Harvinder Singh’s left leg was impaired when he was only one. An injection that a doctor gave him for dengue had an irreversible, adverse effect. The bronze he won in Tokyo was the first archery event India had won at the Paralympics.

Singh remembers being an ace swing bowler, a handy wicketkeeper and a regular at the volleyball ground in Haryana’s Ajitnagar: “The atmosphere was such that I was always treated as an equal in my village. There was no sport I couldn’t be part of.”

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