He might have won a gold medal in the men’s javelin throw at the Asian Games, but Neeraj Chopra wasn’t the only Indian to defend his continental title from Jakarta at Hangzhou. His namesake Neeraj Yadav did the same, defending the gold medal he won in the men’s F55 category at the 2018 Asian Para Games at the 2022 edition at the Asian Para Games in China last month.
And when one thinks about it, the 39-year-old from Ghaziabad might have the edge, considering he added a gold medal in the men’s discus F55 category at Hangzhou as well.
The duo’s connection goes beyond the fact that they share a common name. Yadav has a coach in Vipin Kasana, who made multiple throws over 80m and was once one of Chopra’s top rivals in India before the latter pulled away as a 20-year-old.
Yadav has only admiration for Chopra. And while he might have matched his more illustrious compatriot’s double gold in Asia, he’s still hoping to emulate his Olympic accomplishments with a medal of his own at the Paralympic Games next year.
“Right now, I only share a name with Neeraj. But he’s an incredible athlete. It would be a dream come true to just compete at the Paralympics in Paris,” he tells Sportstar on the sidelines of a function organised by the Indian Oil Corporation to felicitate the Indian contingent that won a total of 111 medals at the Asian Para Games in Hangzhou.
The Paralympics might be a long-term goal for Yadav, who has come close to competing there on two previous occasions. But even he would admit he’s already come a long way. At seven, he was struck by a serious case of paralysis. “I lost the use of the nerves in my legs and arms. It was only thanks to the efforts of my father and grandfather that I eventually regained the use of my arms, and I could at least use a wheelchair,” he says.
Yadav says even as a youngster, he never felt sorry for his misfortune. “At that time, everyone thought what a shame it was that had happened to me and wondered how I would live my life. But I was already thinking of other things. My father was a sportsman. He used to be a wrestler and a volleyball player when he was young. That was what I wanted to do as well. If he went to the akhara, I also followed,” he says.
While his father passed away when Yadav was still young, his interest in sports was firmly passed down to his son. There was little knowledge of parasports in his youth, though. It was only a chance encounter with a sports coach at a school for intellectually disabled children where he worked as a counselor that started his journey. “I started playing wheelchair tennis at the start. I had no idea I would ever become an international athlete back then. I was just happy I was playing sports,” he says.
Yadav stuck with tennis for seven years before shifting to para athletics. “I enjoyed tennis but I realised that if I wanted to achieve something as an athlete, I had to go into athletics. Wheelchair tennis was run by the able bodied federation and there wasn’t a lot of support because of that,” he recalls.
Already a serious gymgoer by then, he would find instant success in the javelin throw event—something that he’s stuck with ever since. The sport would eventually become his main source of income, too. “Before 2018, I was always struggling. I’d got married, and I felt I needed a steady job rather than just playing sports. Even though my wife, who is a doctor, was supportive, I felt I was not contributing. In 2018, after I won a gold medal in the Asian Para Games with a javelin throw record, I got a lot of support from the government. At that time, I was working two jobs: at the school in the morning and as a counselor with the Spinal Injuries Institute in the evening. I still work as a volunteer, but I am able to concentrate full-time on my sports now,” he says.
Yadav says he spends six hours training every day, including three hours in the gym. Powerfully built with 16-inch-thick arms and a barrel chest, he admits he often surprises regular gymgoers. “Right now, I bench press about 160kg. You can see the confusion in their eyes when they see someone in a wheelchair lift much more than them. They are at first a little envious, but then they feel motivated. And I enjoy being a source of motivation for them,” he says.
It’s not weight training that he himself is after though. His goal remains the Paralympics. “That’s the dream for a lot of athletes. I just want to take part and win a medal there. That is what will satisfy me,” he says.
It’s the pursuit of the Paralympics that caused him to add the discus throw to his event list. “I enjoy the javelin, but the F55 category isn’t there at the Olympics. That’s why I started the discus,” he says.
Yadav’s taken the first step toward his Olympic goal. With his gold medal at Hangzhou, he’s won a quota for Paris next year. However, with more Indians expected to win additional quotas in the months leading up to the Games, he knows he cannot take his place for granted. “I had the quota for the last Paralympics as well. But eventually, there were other athletes who got the quota and were sent ahead of me. I need to continue training and get my discus throw close to the mark that will win a medal at the Paralympics. I have a personal best of 40.96m. I want to get that up to around 45m,” he says.
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