Jhajharia: Para-sport awareness on the rise

Meet Devendra Jhajharia, the para-athlete who has won a Paralympic gold medal, a World Championship and is a world-record holder in his category.

Devendra Jhajharia won the gold medal in javelin throw at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.   -  Vivek Bendre

He has won the Paralympic gold. He has bagged the same in a World Championship as well. And he holds the world record in his category. And he is the first para-athlete to have been conferred Padma Shri. Meet Devendra Jhajharia, the para-athlete who has overcome various adversities to make India proud at the global stage.

Thanks to the support from GoSports Foundation and the Indian government’s Target Olympic Podium scheme, the javelin thrower with his left hand amputated will travel to the distinguished Olympic Training Centre in Kuortane, Finland later this month to prepare for the Rio Paralympics.

The 35-year-old who is now employed by the Sports Authority of India as coach opens up about his journey to the top from a remote village in Rajasthan.

Excerpts

Do you remember the day that changed your life?

I must have been eight or nine years old when I got an electric shock. I was climbing a tree in my village in the Churu district of Rajasthan and accidentally touched a live cable, which apparently was a 11,000-volt cable. So severe was the accident that let alone my hand – it had to be amputated right away – nobody was sure whether I would be able to recover from it.



It must have been difficult to deal with the pain followed by the emotional trauma surrounding it?

When I recall those days, I think I didn’t suffer a lot, thanks to my parents. They struggled so much to ensure I didn’t lag behind. Since I hailed from a rural area, whoever we bumped into would look at me and say, “iski zindagi toh barbaad ho gayi (His life has been wasted now)”. You can try and imagine how a parent would feel when someone says stuff like this about their own child. But my parents never let me feel the heat.

That made me more determined and all I was striving for was to not make myself appear weak to the world. And the only way to achieve it was to succeed, to be a champion. To be a champion, you had to be a sportsman, so I started focusing more on sport. In the 10th standard, I started practising every day and soon, I became district champion in open category. I was giving it all I had because I was desperate to prove I was stronger than others. I kept doing that as I kept on winning medals in district, inter-college, state.

In 2002, my coach RD Singh helped me participate in the Para-Asian games and I came back from the first overseas tour with a gold medal, after breaking the Games record. I had no clue about Parasports till I reached college. I have been a medal-winner in able-bodied All India Inter-University Championship in 2003-04.



Your gold medal at Athens 2004 came against all the odds. How much has the scenario changed for Indian para-sport since then?

I feel the 2004 Paralympics medal was the catalyst for starting the Paralympics movement in India. The Government also recognised us only after considering that the able-bodied athletes were struggling to shine whereas a Paralympian, without any help, had won a gold medal. The government recognition was followed by a bit of a help as well.



What sort of help did you get?

The overall support system was introduced first and has been improving steadily. We get better training equipment, facilities and physiotherapists now. And most importantly, we are getting to participate in lots of international tournaments all over the world. When you play tournaments only then will you get a chance to perform. If you are sent directly for a big tournament, like an Asiad or an Olympics, there are chances of you bogging down the pressure and unable to give your best. Instead, if you have had a feel of the big stage by featuring in world events, whether you win a medal or not, it makes you far more confident while going into a World Championship or an Olympics. In that aspect, the rise in exposure has been instrumental in Indian Para-athletes’ improved performance.



How has your life changed since 2004?

I was 23 years old back in 2004, now I am 35 (laughs). I feel I have been a consistent performer for well over a decade. Even after breaking the world record in 2004, I created the championship record while winning the gold medal in the World Championship in 2013. After that in 2014, at the Incheon Asian Games, I won silver. And not too long ago, I won silver medal in the World Championship.

Another big change I have noticed is sports has got more and more importance in India. Every citizen of Indian wants to watch, if not play, sport. Fifteen years ago, it was a different world, but now everyone wants Indian sports to improve and a lot of people and institutions like GoSports are striving to achieve it.



Do you feel para-athletes don’t get recognition as much as other sportspersons in India?

For sure we don’t get our due in general. After all, you won’t find any other sportsperson in India who has a world championship medal and Olympics gold and who holds the world record for more than a decade. But let me tell you one thing, the awareness about Para-sport is on the rise and slowly we are getting more recognition. People know about us and our achievements now and we get respect just the way those from able sports receive. It gives a sense of achievement.



How do you see your role for differently-abled community in India?

There is a very high percentage of differently-abled people in India. Our community is, I think, about three to four per cent of the overall population. All these differently abled persons continue to struggle to get acceptance from the society. When they look at some of us, they get motivated. We are like role models for them to live with their heads held high. And all of us, the athletes, realise it and we keep telling everyone from our community that you overcome physical challenges with whatever resources you have. There are role models like us in various fields, be it education, art or sport. They give a ray of hope to the whole clan to improve.