Record-breaker Sumit Antil has more peaks to conquer

Sumit Antil broke world records on his way to a gold medal in F64 javelin throw at the Tokyo Paralympics with a final mark of 68.55m. He wants to cross the 75m-mark at the 2022 Asian Games before going for his ultimate dream of throwing beyond 80m

Gaining popularity: Sumit Antil became a household name overnight and the videos of his throws were all over social media. Athletes and celebrities showered praise on him.   -  Getty Images

“Main Olympic medal leke aunga. Main aise kuch karunga jo dono payr wale bhi nahi kar paenge, ek din aisa daudunga ki koi pakad nahi paega (I will bring home an Olympic medal. I will achieve something that even the able-bodied won’t be able to. I will run so fast that no one will be able to catch me)” — Sumit Antil had once told his mother.

Sumit obliterated records on his way to a gold medal in F64 javelin throw at the Tokyo Paralympics with a final mark of 68.55m. His crowning moment came three weeks after his good friend Neeraj Chopra took home India’s maiden athletics gold medal at the Olympics.

“I used to belt out these dialogues to my mother when I was recovering from my accident, aise hi hawa hawa mein (in jest),” says Sumit with a sheepish grin.

A routine trip back home from his tuition class on January 5, 2015, changed his life forever. A tractor collided with his bike and ran over his left leg, crushing it. He was rushed to the Army Base hospital in New Delhi where the doctors told him he had to be amputated below the knee. “It's okay, just go for it,” he remembers telling them.

Sumit was 16. He was a budding wrestler and aspired to join the Army.

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“I broke down when I came back from the operation theatre. That was the only day I cried. I cried the entire day. The first thought that came to my mind was that I can’t be a fauji (Armyman),” he says.

After being confined to a bed for 53 days, Sumit went to the Artificial Limb Centre in Pune to try out a prosthetic leg.

Proud moment: “It feels good when you can inspire someone. Earlier, there would only be two or three of us training but now I see nearly 50 children with javelin sticks. I am happy to have inspired them. It serves as a big motivation,” says Sumit.   -  Getty Images

“I used to wonder why such a thing happened to me and would feel bad but when I saw others there, I felt blessed and lucky because they were happy even though they were in worse circumstances. That gave me a positive mindset and helped me accept who I am.

“When I came back home in July with a prosthetic leg, I went to the akhada (wrestling pit) and tried to wrestle, but I could not since my knee movement was very limited. I was feeling very low and considered taking up a 9-5 job. I joined Ramjas College in Delhi to pursue a B. Com degree. I set up a small gym in my room and would come back from college, shut the door, and work out. That helped me remain fit,” he says.

He met his coach Virender Dhankar — who won the shot put silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games — and Naval Singh around the same time.

Sumit had quite an eventful first meeting with the duo. “I had just met Virender bhaisaab for the first time and went on to pick up a javelin that was lying around. I assumed it would cost about Rs. 700-800, but when I heard the cost, I carefully kept it back. It cost over a lakh!

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“I remember asking him: “Bhaisaab, world record kitna hai?” (laughs). He began to laugh and chided me for wanting to know about the world record before considering district, state, or national records. But he focussed on my growth and trained me hard. He told me humans should dream big. I’m grateful to him for believing in me.”

Sumit put in the hard yards at the SAI Northern Regional Centre in Sonipat, while continuing his studies. None of his collegemates knew about his prosthetic leg. “I have been blessed with a good gait cycle and hence my friends never knew about my prosthetic leg. We had a small accident one day and my prosthetic leg rotated a little and one of them noticed. I told him not to tell anyone.”

Sumit’s friends found out about his prosthetic leg and sports career only when his name appeared in newspapers after he was selected for the Para Asian Games. “One of my friends saw it and put a photo of that clipping in our group.”

Sumit’s career graph took a steep jump in 2018, hardly a year after he took up parasports. He broke the world record in the trials for the Asian Games though it wasn’t officially registered. He did not win a medal at the Games then but gave enough indication of his potential.

“I broke the world record at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Italy in 2019, then at the Paris GP, followed by the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. I broke the record once again when I competed at the Indian Grand Prix 3 alongside Neeraj Chopra bhai and once again at the Nationals. And three more times at the Paralympics,” he says.

The Paralympics were a different beast and Sumit knew he had to be a cut above the rest. “I was the world record holder even earlier, but to perform at such a high level was a very big challenge. I had a bit of pressure because I was ranked second and had to win a medal.

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“The unwavering support I got from my coach and family made me believe that there must be something special about me. When I got to the Olympic Stadium, I remember thinking that this is the day that I have worked for and struggled so long for. I was determined that I won't go home empty-handed.”

He adds that Neeraj Chopra’s medal served as both an inspiration and pressure. “Neeraj won India’s first track and field gold medal and it was historic. I was inspired but also felt a pinch of pressure because I also compete in javelin. But I also felt if he can do it I can too — he paved that way for us.

“I still think about every moment from that day and play it in my head. It might surprise you, but I was happy when I found out that I was the first thrower. Most athletes get nervous if they throw first, but I was happy that I could put pressure on them. My first throw was a world record, and it was an easy one, I did not exert much. That gave me the confidence that I can increase my distance and go all the way,” he says.

Sumit became a household name overnight and the videos of his throws were all over social media. Athletes and celebrities showered praise on him.

“When I won, I really did not expect it would be celebrated so much. When I won the gold and came to my team, they told me that I was trending on Twitter and that my video was going viral. And when I saw the celebrations back home...that's one of the most cherished memories of my life.

“When I flew back to India, the crowd at the airport was massive. Even though I landed at midnight, there were so many people. The crowd had swelled so much that the airport security took me back inside the airport and asked me if I wanted to leave via the back gate. I said: ‘No, they have all come to receive me so I must meet them.’ It feels good to be recognised,” he says.

“Someone told me that I am the face of the Para-Games. It feels good to challenge myself and win laurels for the nation. I’m only 23 now and most javelin throwers peak at the age of 28 or 29. I have time on my side and yearn to cross the 80m mark soon. 80m toh mujhe karna hi hai har haal mein (I must breach the 80m mark at any cost.) I am aiming to touch the 75m mark at the 2022 Asian Games,” Sumit, who considers javelin thrower Vipin Kasana as his mentor, says.

He adds, “I have had to bear a lot of pain. From the Nationals in March to my event at the Paralympics on August 30 — there was not a single day when I was not in pain. My coaches were happy that I trained so hard even with so much pain. They never showed me sympathy and kept me motivated and kept me going. They kept telling me I’m the best and would say 'tu bohot tagda hai' (you’re very tough).

“After the accident, I told myself that I want to achieve something and see the pride in my mother’s eyes. I saw that feeling in her eyes when we met at the airport with the gold medal around my neck. That was my biggest achievement in life — it was greater than my medal.”

Life back in Sonipat has completely changed for Sumit. The Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna awardee is mobbed by fans eager for a ‘selfie’ every time he steps out of the house and there is a strong interest in the sport.

“It feels good when you can inspire someone. Earlier, there would only be two or three of us training but now I see nearly 50 children with javelin sticks. I am happy to have inspired them. It serves as a big motivation.”