A few weeks ago, Sumit Antil’s congratulatory message was one amongst the thousands of similar texts that flooded Neeraj Chopra’s phone following his gold medal in the men’s javelin throw competition at the Hangzhou Para Asian Games.
Antil wasn’t expecting any response from the Olympic and World Champion but was pleasantly surprised to get a ping and then a call back.
“I congratulated him on his Asian Games gold medal. He thanked me and told me ‘I hope you break your world record at the Para Asian Games as well. He knew that I had a world record in para athletics. He follows this a lot,’ Antil said.
The 25-year-old from Sonipat, Haryana would do just that. On Wednesday, not only did Antil win gold in the men’s javelin throw F-64 category at the Para Asian Games, he did so with a mammoth new world record of 73.29m, surpassing his own record of 70.83m that he had set just a few months before at the World Para Athletics Championships.
Such was the level of his dominance that Antil only made three throws in the competition (66.22m, 70.48m and 73.29m) all of which would have won gold at Hangzhou. Even Antil’s poorest measured throw of the competition was over 2m bigger than the silver medal-winning effort of Sri Lanka’s Arachige Kodithuwakku.
Antil knew that he was the heavy favourite going into the competition. “My target is just to better my world record,” he had told Sportstar a few days before his competition. Even Antil admits this was an unusual sort of target – even Neeraj Chopra isn’t expected to break his national record every time he competes. “Every time I compete, I’m expected to break a world record. Sometimes it feels like there are a lot of expectations. But at the same time, it gives a lot of motivation to me,” he had said.
It’s setting a target at an ever further number that Antil says is behind his medal haul – he’s been unbeaten in the competition since winning the Paralympic title in 2021. “I don’t think about a medal. I only think about distance. If you can throw the number in your mind, the chances are you will also win a medal. This year my target was 70m. I’ve achieved it already (70.83m at the World Para Athletics Championships). At the Asian Games, I wanted to improve that by 1 or 2 meters.” he says.
And while he’s done even better than he had targeted, Antil has an even bigger goal on his mind. “My target for the Olympics is to touch 75m. Let’s see if I get there or not,” he says.
No Para athlete, across all disability classifications, has come anywhere near that mark. 75M would be competitive at many able-bodied meets too. But Antil, who has previously competed with able-bodied athletes including Neeraj Chopra at the Federation Cup in 2021, doesn’t want to be limited by his disability.
“In able-bodied competition, people are throwing over 90m. And in Para, we are going above 70m now. But we can do more. There’s a perception, that even I had when I started competing in para athletics -- that this was easy and the competition isn’t the same. But I want to make such a throw that when I retire, people think that there is some level in para athletics too. I want people to treat this sport and its athletes not with sympathy but with respect,” he says.
Antil says that he’s seen public perception change throughout his career. “Two years before, not many people knew who I was. After I won the Paralympic gold medal, I got a lot of support. It wasn’t just from the government but from private companies and ordinary people,” he says.
He noticed this recently when he put up a post on his Instagram. “It’s one thing when Neeraj Chopra replies to you or wishes you. He’s connected to the sport. He’s seen me compete with him. But recently I put up an Instagram story when Neeraj won the Asian Games gold. I must have got a thousand messages and they were all supportive. They said “We are waiting for your gold medal as well’. That’s when I realised people are interested in my event as well. That’s something that motivates me a lot. In the past I never expected I would have a thousand messages. I genuinely didn’t expect it. But people are praying for me. Hoping that I break the World record. Now when I go to the stadium, people are inspired. They come up to me and say we know you. They know I am a gold medallist,” he says.
That appreciation is bittersweet for Antil. He remembers feeling dejected after his promising wrestling career was cut short after his left leg was amputated following a bike crash. “At that time I was really feeling low. After the accident, I thought my sports career was over. I didn’t have a role model to follow. There was no one with a leg disability such as I have who achieved significance in sports,” he says.
Antil knows he can be that role model for others. “I feel that if not an icon, at least people will see me as someone who opened up a few doors for others in the position I was in. I remember how dejected I was when I first suffered my injury. I hope that when others are facing similar challenges, they can see me and realise that they too can achieve something,” he says.
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