Fitness, confidence, self-belief - Jhajharia’s success mantra

Devendra Jhajharia, India’s most decorated Paralympian with three medals, says he will continue to compete till his body allows him to. For now, he believes he is as fit as a 20-year-old.

Silver arrow: Devendra Jhajharia won a silver medal in the men’s javelin throw F46 at the Tokyo Paralympics to add to the gold medals he won in Athens (2004) and Rio (2016).   -  AP

Devendra Jhajharia is 40, but believes that he is as fit as a 20-year-old. Over the years, the javelin thrower has emerged as one of the most successful para-athletes in the world, clinching three Paralympics medals – in 2004, 2016 and 2020 Tokyo – in the men’s F46 category. But he is not done yet. With the Asian Games lined up next year, Jhajharia wants to start preparing for the event soon and believes that with the Indian government helping the para-athletes immensely, the future of para sports is bright.

On a break currently, Jhajharia speaks to Sportstar on a range of issues…

Gold medals in 2004 and 2016 Paralympics, silver in Tokyo Games, two world championship titles, one Asian Games silver medal – you have arguably been the most successful Indian para-athlete. How do you see this journey?

When I participated in the 2004 Paralympics, nobody had an idea about it in India. There was hardly any support and I had to manage my own finances to participate in that Paralympics. It was difficult to arrange the funds, but I somehow managed. I still remember that when I left for Athens, my father was the only person who had gone to the airport to see me off. Before I left, he told me that, “If you win a medal here, the country will definitely be proud of you.” and those words actually motivated me. Soon after I won the gold medal in 2004, the Indian government recognised the Indian Paralympics body and that was definitely a boost. Though I had to wait for 12 years to feature in my next Olympics in Rio in 2016. By then, the government took all the initiative to support the athletes.

READ - Full list of Indian medallists at the 2020 Paralympics

You said that not many knew about Paralympics in 2004, but over the years, things have improved immensely for para-athletes. What do you think has brought the change?

This year’s Paralympics was completely different. It was Mission Tokyo and the Indian government did an incredible job of backing the athletes and taking care of them with the TOPS scheme. The involvement of the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) was a huge thing. I think what actually helped was the fact that the government ensured that the TOPS scheme benefited all the athletes. In the past, there have been several policies but not many were properly implemented, so that’s where TOPS made the difference, it fulfilled the needs of the athletes and there was no scope for any complaint. Whenever the athletes wanted a fitness trainer, physiotherapist or a foreign training – everything was addressed. This was a changing India and this positivity was showing in every aspect. Before we left for Tokyo, the Prime Minister spoke to the contingent and even with the family members, which was a huge mental boost for all. The Prime Minister told us, “dabao nahi man na…” (do not come under pressure). When the Prime Minister of the country himself gets involved in the Paralympics mission, it is a huge thing for us and we are grateful to him. So, we were there beaming with confidence and clinched medals. Earlier, we had 12 medals, this time we had 19, so this clearly is a ‘badalta hua Bharat… (changing India).The Prime Minister told us, “dabao nahi man na…” (do not come under pressure). When the Prime Minister of the country himself gets involved in the Paralympics mission, it is a huge thing for us and we are grateful to him. So, we were there beaming with confidence and clinched medals. Earlier, we had 12 medals, this time we had 19, so this clearly is a ‘badalta hua Bharat… (changing India).

India won 19 medals in the Tokyo Paralympics. Going forward, what are your expectations from Indian para-athletes?

While the TOPS scheme has helped the elite athletes, the junior athletes, too, have benefited from the Khelo India. A lot of youngsters have taken up para sports and it has given them a lot to look forward to. When more and more youngsters come in, the performances will only get better. We finished 24th in the world, but I am hopeful we will be in the Top 15 in Paris, and in the Top 10 by 2028. Earlier, sports science was not that developed in India, but now, we have improved immensely.

How do you see the involvement of corporates in para-sports?

It is really heartening to see so many corporate groups coming forward to support para sports. Also, I must credit the media for giving a new dimension in covering para-sports. There has been a sea change, over the years.

READ: Sports Minister felicitates Paralympic medal winners

With so much uncertainty looming over the Tokyo Paralympics due to the pandemic, how challenging was it for the athletes to prepare for the competition and also stay motivated?

COVID was a huge challenge. Last year, when it was announced that the Paralympics will be postponed by a year, it was quite a disappointing news. I was already 39, and I thought that next year, I will be a year older and it will be even more difficult to perform. There was suspense over the competition, but I never lost hope. Our job was to focus on training and we continued doing that. In November last year, I was down with COVID-19, so recovering from it and regaining momentum was a challenge. When we reached Tokyo, there were too many protocols and dos and don’ts. It was very different.

You have been a poster boy of India’s Paralympic movement and going forward, do you see yourself in the administrative side of things? And how much, do you think, has the PCI played a role in the improvement of para-sport in the country?

The Paralympic body is led by Deepa Malik – who herself is a Paralympic medallist, so she understands what an athlete goes through. Our secretary general, too, has done an incredible job. If you look at the Tokyo Olympics, not a single player had any complaints about the federation or the government because things were organised very smoothly. As far as my target is concerned, I want to now focus on the 2022 Asian Games, and I will continue to play as long as my body permits. I have not started full-fledged training yet; I do some warm-up at home and will take some rest. After that, we will come up with a proper training plan.

After winning gold in the 2004 Athens Paralympics, it took you 12 long years to feature in yet another Paralympics and you clinched another gold. How did you cope with the long wait? Did you ever feel like giving up?

I had made up my mind to quit the sport in 2010, but then, my wife said that I should aim for the 2016 Paralympics. I had to start all over again and I won a gold medal at World championships in 2013. For an athlete, every day is a new challenge and in those 12 years, I kept believing in myself and motivated myself, hoping that I still have the potential to clinch at least one more Paralympics medal. There was hunger for sure and I tried training again. At the age of 35 clinched yet another gold medal at the Rio Games in 2016. This time too, there were initial thoughts on how it would be possible to play at 39, but I had the confidence and my fitness level was as good as that of a 20-year-old.

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Going forward, is there any particular area that needs to be addressed to make para sports even better in the country?

The biggest problem in India is that we don’t have too many accessible grounds for para-sports. It is absolutely important to have more and more accessible grounds. Most of the grounds belong to state governments, and most of those arenas don’t have wheel-chair support or other facilities required for blind athletes. We need to improve these things at the district and grassroots level, so that para-sport improves in the country. If we can develop this at the grassroots level, we can dream of being among the top-five or top-10 countries in para-sports. The central government facilities – like the SAI – have all those facilities and I hope things will change in the states as well and state governments will take more initiative to promote para-sports facilities.