Giving a leg-up to para-athletes

Veteran teacher R. D. Singh has dedicated his post-retirement life to silently shaping competent parathletes, one of whom is the Paralympian Devendra Jhajharia.

Former President of India Pratibha Patil conferring the Dronacharya Award to R. D. Singh.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

Each of the serpentine lanes of Hanumangarh has a tale to tell. The small town — also a district — in Rajasthan has its legacy of producing army jawans, and a few of India’s fast bowlers.

As one walks past the various muhallas, stories of how the local bravehearts fought many a war can be heard. The tea stalls, however, would often find a bunch of youngsters gathering to discuss about the future of Indian cricket, and where exactly the fast bowlers struggle.

So, at a glimpse, it would look like this Rajasthan town is happily balancing between the jawans and cricket.

But go further and you would realise there’s more to it than meets the eye.

In one corner of the small town, a veteran teacher has been silently producing national icons. One look at Ripu Daman Singh Aulakh — or RD Saab as he is fondly known — would give you the impression that he is just another local former teacher, whiling away his time after retirement.

But then, impressions are often deceptive!

The former Director of Physical Education at Nehru Memorial College, Singh is known as one of the pioneers in coaching para-athletes. And, his most successful ward is Devendra Jhajharia.

The paralympian, who is considered one of the inspirational figures of the nation, took up full-fledged athletics after visiting Singh. “He was a young boy then. The first time I met Devendra was in an inter-school tournament in Shri Ganganagar. He looked quite impressive,” a nostalgic Singh tells Sportstar.

After the tournament got over, the seasoned coach asked a young Jhajaria — who lost his left hand after accidentally touching an electric wire at the age of 8 — if he would be interested in shifting to Hanumangarh to train under him. The youngster agreed.

“Soon, he was in Hanumangarh, training under me. We had a small hostel then and the kids would stay there. Devendra too joined them,” the coach says.

As he speaks, some of his present wards at the Dronacharya Hostel (a self-funded hostel running since 1990, where young athletes come from various parts of the state to train under Singh) ask him a few questions on how to practice longer. “After Devendra’s success, I try to produce more and more para-athletes. That’s why this hostel provides free facilities to the young athletes,” he explains the reason behind running a hostel.

To ensure that the deserving candidates get a chance in the hostel, Singh and a few of his students scout talents. “We travel to various parts of the state and beyond to find promising para-athletes. That is something we have been doing for years now. I find immense satisfaction in bringing out local talents,” he says.

Perhaps, that’s why recently he travelled to Sardarshahar in search of a youngster, who lost both his hands in an accident, but is extremely talented. “The locals spoke highly of him, so we decided to bring him to the hostel and give proper training,” he says. But on reaching Sardarshahar, they discovered that the family had sent the boy to beg at a local fair. “That’s how they run the family. He will be back home after the fair gets over,” Singh says. He, however, is confident of bringing the youngster to the Dronacharya Hostel soon. “We can’t lose such promising talents,” he says.

It is this dedication that helped Singh bring out talents like Jhajharia, Jagseer Singh and Sandeep Singh Mann. “Today as I look back, I feel Devendra has been a lucky charm for me as well. After he joined the hostel here, the scene changed, and I could produce so many international talents,” he says.

During the training days, Singh would accompany Jhajharia and the other wards to different tournaments.

After the javelin star bagged gold at the Athens Paralympics in 2004, Singh was conferred the Dronacharya Award in 2006. But then, by his own admission, awards mean very little to him. “There is no substitute for hard work. And, as a coach, I can’t rest on my laurels,” he says.

The fact that his old ward, Jhajharia, has been named for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna this year, too has brought a smile on his face. “I spoke to him a few days back and I knew he would get it. Unlike many athletes, Devendra has always stayed grounded and that is one thing that keeps him going,” says Singh, who played basketball in his youth.

As a physical education teacher, he came across a few wards who were physically disabled, and that’s how he got into para-athletics. “Initially, I was hesitant. But after so many years, it feels good to have so many students around. They may be physically challenged, but look at their athleticism,” Singh points out.

At 62, when most of his old friends are busy spending time with the family, Singh starts his day quite early, with a series of training sessions with the wards. This goes on for a few hours. When the students take rest or go to school in the afternoon, Singh does a bit of farming before commencing the practice again in the evening. “That has been my routine for the last few decades. And even now, I enjoy every moment.”

While no government funds the hostel, Singh and a few of his students contribute regularly to ensure its smooth running. “This is where it all began. At a time when para-athletics is being noticed, we need more such centres,” he says, while getting ready for the day’s training session.

Over the years, his wards have become international figures, but sitting in a small town in one corner of the country, Singh is happy to have contributed his bit to the sport, rather silently.

You don’t always need to shout, to be heard!