India's Paralympic Stars- Shattering Myth, Prejudice and Perception
India's paralympic stars are shining bright in Tokyo and it's the result of yeats of hard work and planning.
The athletes, they bleed inspiration and rain medals. Our Paralympians are human beings that translate limitation into challenge, soaring on the strength of their imagination. And through their acts of courage, perspiration and perseverance, they challenge our ideas of life and its possibilities.
India sent 57 women and men of substance sailing to the Paralympics, chasing impossible dreams. Some of them delivered a rich haul on Monday. Even as the country was celebrating the underdog act of Bhavina Patel, who upended fancied rivals to extract Silver from the cauldron of the Games, her fellow champions produced an epic Olympic day, minting five more glorious medals.
Avani Lekhara is 19. Seated on her chair, gaze firm on target, Avani channels her breath and body into a meditative calm. She unleashes her aspirations every time she pulls the trigger.
The first Indian woman to win a Paralympic Gold is just a young girl with tremendous resilience. Her faith defies belief, a world beater despite her apparent disadvantages.
The teenager has come a long way since suffering a life altering accident in 2012, when she suffered injuries to the spinal cord. Her world record equalling score of 249.6 put her alongside just three other Indians that could boast of a Paralympic Gold. Swimmer Murlikant Petkar (1972), javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia (2004 and 2016) and high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu (2016) are the only other athletes to have won a Gold earlier.
Not to forget, Sumit Antil. The javelin thrower went on a blitz, breaking the world record with three of his six throws on a sensational day for the Indian Paralympian movement. India waited 32 years for its second Gold medal, Jhajharia ending the drought in Athens. On this occasion, we needed to wait barely a few hours. While Antil’s success underlines the continued growth of Paralympic sport in India, the achievements of Jhajharia and Thangavelu in Rio deserve credit for turning the spotlight firmly on the Paralympians in India.
Tokyo Stars Changing The Way Paralympians Are Perceived
The status of Deepa Malik and Mansi Joshi as the poster girls of Indian Paralympic sport has produced a multiplier effect for other aspirants. But long before the current goldrush, the work of many unsung athletes who painted the canvas before them, went without too much recognition or reward. Those days of ignominy are clearly buried in the past, in an increasingly sensitive society, just coming to terms with a broader understanding of sport and its practitioners.
The athletes in Tokyo this week are not merely winning medals, but continuing to shatter carefully crafted ideas of sporting perfection.
The achievements of Antil and Lekhara show us that excellence and imperfection can co-exist. Perhaps, even thrive. Imperfection fuels their tryst with excellence.
Every step these athletes take shatters myth, prejudice and perception. These are artists, leaping to paint the clouds, despite the staggering hurdles in the form of their physical, visual and intellectual abilities.
If Lekhara is a youthful teenaged aspirant to the throne of her sport, Jhajharia is a seasoned veteran, who defies age to remain firmly at the pinnacle of his sport at the ripe age of 40. His Silver medal winning performance came seventeen years after his famous Athens burst. Sundar Singh Gurjar was all of eight when Jhajharia was soaring into prominence in 2004 with his modest Rs. 300 spear, wearing a worn pair of shoes that costed just Rs. 400.
Gurjar showed that the inspiring journey of the great legend has produced depth in Indian para-athletics by securing a Bronze in the same event. Yogesh Kathuniya's F56 Silver in discus throw can also be credited in some measure to the success of Jhajharia and how some of it leant depth not only to javelin, but also to Indian para-athletics.
More Support for Paralympians Translating Into More Medals
India has ten medals so far, including two Gold, five Silver and three Bronze. Observers claim that two of the most important reasons for the continued success of our para-athletes could be rooted in the nature of their pursuit and a broader acknowledgment of their brilliance over the past few years.
The relationship between coach and athlete is far more intense in the case of para-athletes. They tend to build a deeper connection due to the daily support necessary to harness top class performances.
The role of the coach, some suggest, is a combination of caretaker and mentor. When the initial foundation is set, the duo can produce an edifice of excellence working relentlessly, aided as much by effort as they are by a unique chemistry of understanding and respect.
The second factor and perhaps just as important is the scale of acknowledgment for para-athletes, particularly in recent years. The Gujarat government announced a Rs. 3 crores reward for the heroic performances of Bhavina Patel in Tokyo 2020. Deepa Malik, Thangavelu and Jhajharia were also at the receiving end of some handsome rewards for their performances in Rio, even though much smaller than the gift to Bhavina. A combination of street recognition and financial reward seem to be driving both trainer and performer to push ever harder, in the quest for a life altering Olympic performance.
Resources from the State and support from organisations such as Olympic Gold Quest and GoSports Foundation have also played a significant role in lifting standards for para-athletes in recent years.
The Elite Sports Training Centre in Gandhinagar, dedicated to para-athletes, receives financial assistance from the National Sports Development Fund, operated by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport.
The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) has been doing some stellar work under the leadership of Malik, who understands the demands of Paralympic sport as well as the challenges of an athlete from her own personal experiences.
Similarly, both the OGQ and GSF have been providing financial and performance related support to para-athletes for several years now. The not-for-profit sector has been providing para-athletes access to expertise and infrastructure, supporting their quest for excellence.
While the downpour on Monday may feel like a sudden windfall, the performances of our para-athletes were just a culmination of life long journeys of challenged professionals, who won in their minds first before pulling off some incredible feats with their bodies.
Indian sport will be richer for their pursuit of the seemingly impossible. But even more importantly, millions of Indians across the country must be revitalizing their own lives drawing from the inspiration of these mighty gladiators.
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