It’s 8.45 a.m. on Sunday, May 15, and Dhanush Srikanth’s parents are outside the arrival gates of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. There’s still a few hours before their son, now a Deaflympics champion, lands. The parents, however, are there early, eager to see Dhanush, who has been away for a month.
Dhanush finally comes out around 11 a.m. “They (Government of India) had planned a welcome party for them inside the airport. They were given a hero’s welcome... the whole team. Officials from SAI (Sports Authority of India) were also present,” Srikanth, Dhanush’s father, tells Sportstar.
This is in stark contrast to 2017 when the Indian Deaflympics contingent staged a six-hour protest outside the airport as no government representatives were there to welcome the medal winners. India had returned with five medals — a gold, a silver and three bronze medals.
“We were thinking nothing is going to happen. But things have changed for the better after the last Paralympics, where Avani (Lekhara) and others broke records. Sportspersons with disabilities are now being recognised more,” Srikanth says.
Dhanush, hearing and speech impaired from birth, shot 247.5 in the men’s 10m air rifle final in Caxias do Sul, Brazil, to break German marksman Colin Muller’s 2019 record of 243.2, and finished atop the standings. He clinched gold again on the sixth day of the competition, partnering Priyesha Deshmukh in the 10m air rifle mixed team event.
Srikanth regrets he couldn’t watch the action live. “Some other sports were available for streaming. The government had given a nod to Doordarshan to go ahead with the broadcast arrangements, but somehow it didn’t happen. We got updates via messages from other parents who were travelling.
“Later, when the announcement came, we had calls pouring in from everywhere and we were being congratulated. Even people we weren’t in touch with contacted us. We are happy and proud. The fever is on. Kuch toh karke dikhaya hai humare bachche ne! (Our son has done something great!),” says Srikanth, barely managing to hold back his emotions.
Dhanush has always been fond of sports, says Srikanth. “He loved collecting medals. I have a photograph of him wearing 10 medals; he won almost all the events that year in school. He developed an interest in taekwondo after learning a bit of karate. Ultimately, he went on to become a second dan black belt holder.”
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Dhanush, however, had to soon discontinue his taekwondo lessons since it would have had an adverse impact on his cochlear implant, the first of which he got as a one-year-old. “He was then the youngest kid in India to have an implant at that age,” says Srikanth. In 2010, Dhanush had to get another implant because the first had started malfunctioning.
Keen on taking up a different sport, Dhanush came across an advertisement banner of four-time Olympian Gagan Narang’s academy ‘Gun for Glory’ (GFG). “As parents, we were open to whatever he wanted. He is our only son. When he said he wanted to try shooting, my wife approached Gagan in 2015. After she explained Dhanush’s hearing and speech problems, Gagan took it up as a challenge.”
As Dhanush found it difficult to express himself, Gagan and his team devised their own language consisting of diagrams and hand signs to convey the technicalities of the sport to the then 13-year-old. Dhanush turned out to be a quick learner and began competing in open category events. After winning titles across the junior, youth and senior categories at the 2018 Telangana State Shooting Championships, he won the U-21 gold medal in 10m air rifle at the 2019 Khelo India Youth Games. He also bagged three gold medals in the 2019 Junior Asian Championships in Doha before topping the leaderboard in Lima, Peru during the 2021 Junior World Championships.
“GFG gave him special attention from the beginning. We are indebted to Gagan’s team. As they say of people with disabilities, Dhanush’s seventh sense works wonders. He is also very patient. If he realises the person in front of him is having problems comprehending what he is saying, he will wait till he has been able to communicate. Nowadays, Gagan’s team understands Dhanush faster than us.”
Srikanth says Dhanush couldn’t have been where he is today without the support of his coaches. “His coach, Neha Chavan of GFG, used to sit just behind him during competitions should he need any assistance. She has been coaching him from the start. Also, huge thanks to sports physiotherapist Vidya Thapa from OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest). Even if she can’t be there physically, she calls every day. She has a separate programme for Dhanush. He also has a mind trainer at GFG — Kirtika Pandey. Thanks to them, Dhanush has always been on a par with people from the open category.”
The Deaflympics is a stepping stone to Dhanush’s bigger goal — Paris 2024 Olympics, where he wants to challenge the world’s top shooters in the open category events. His immediate destination, however, is Baku, Azerbaijan, where he is set to participate in his maiden senior ISSF World Cup starting May 27.
But it is time to celebrate now. And Srikanth knows how to do it best. “The fact that all three of us — Srikanth, mother Asha and Dhanush — are together is a celebration in itself because half the time he is away from us. Achche se khilayenge usey abhi.Sehat thoda achcha karke, camp mein chod denge (We will treat him to good food, make him healthy and drop him off at the camp).”
Srikanth plans to serve Dhanush all his favourite dishes — the shooter relishes paneer curry. After all, Dhanush would be keen on adding to his ever-growing medal collection, the one he has been maintaining since his schooldays.
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