‘If this hadn’t happened, I would not have known what to do.’ H.N. Girisha talks about how life has changed after his silver medal at the Paralympics.
From the moment he cleared 1.74m on September 3 at London’s Olympic Park, high-jumper H.N. Girisha’s life changed immutably. That jump brought him a silver medal at the Paralympics, considerable fame, and most importantly altered — he reveals — his opinion of himself. A month and innumerable public appearances later, Girisha is at ease with his popularity; something he sees as a good portent for the future of disability sports in India. “I was stunned,” he admits, “that so many people saw this as something so important.” Today, what is most palpable in Girisha is a vast sense of relief. “If this hadn’t happened, I would not have known what to do,” he says. “There would have been nothing to show for all those years of effort.” In an undisturbed conversation — that begins before dinner but stretches till the kitchen in his hotel shuts — the 24-year-old discusses the Paralympics, his childhood, and the meaning of his success. Excerpts:
It’s been a month since you returned. What has changed in your life?
The world’s perception of me has changed. My perception of me has changed. Strangers walk up to me; they want to greet me. It makes you feel good about yourself.
Those first few days must have been a blur…
The reaction took me by surprise. Hundreds of people welcomed me at the airport, both in Bangalore and Delhi. Film stars tweeted about my success. Sachin Tendulkar telephoned me. I was interviewed on TV; even the BBC had me over at their studios.
You have now become a hero to the disabled community. But when did you actually understand you were disabled?
Obviously I knew that I was different; my left ankle is polio-affected from birth. I probably realised it by the time I was five or six. But I have never felt disabled. Nobody should even use that word.
How did your condition affect your childhood?
It never prevented me from having a normal childhood, from doing things other kids did. If anything, I was more active and mischievous than they were. I skipped school in the afternoons to play; I swam in the pond, played marbles, played cricket, everything.
Yeah. I was very serious about my batting. I hated having to use a runner but sometimes I’d be forced to. And I bowled too, although off a small run-up.
How were things with other kids? How were they towards you?
There was nastiness sometimes. I was called names — bad ones — but it was all in the heat of the moment, may be when there was a really close match (laughs). I never took any of that personally.
You say you skipped school. Didn’t they find out at home?
My father was thoroughly frustrated with my truancy. When he started beating me, I’d run into the backyard and leap over a barbed-wire fence. He couldn’t jump and the chase would end there. Maybe that was where I honed my high-jumping skills (laughs).
What was your first serious high-jumping experience?
I was in Class 7, and I was at a sports meet at the ‘hobli’ level. I had never practised high jump or had any idea of what it was. I just jumped and finished with a silver medal — my first ever award. Today, that silver has translated into this one. I think of it as a cycle that has been completed.
You were competing with able-bodied athletes all this time, correct?
Yes, all through high-school and pre-university. People never objected to it. I was never made to feel different. Once, in college (ANV FGC, Gorur), I was to participate in the Mysore University meet in 2005. The PE Director refused me an entry, probably because he was scared I’d injure myself. I was walking back from his office in tears when he relented. I finished with a bronze and the same PE Director honoured me before the entire college.
When were you introduced to para-athletics, what was that transition like?
Till then, I had only competed with able-bodied athletes. I thought when I was defeating the able-bodied at college-level there was no reason for me to do this. When I came to Bangalore in 2006 for my first para-athletics meet (the 8 Senior Nationals), it was an awakening. I entered the men’s 100m, looked around, and thought, ‘I’ll win with ease against this lot’. But you know what? I finished last in my heat. Last. That’s when I realised this was serious business.
But you were still good in the high jump?
Yeah, I created a national record. It convinced me that I could actually make it professionally as a para-athlete. I narrowly missed qualifying for Beijing in 2008.
Yet you left a year later?
I was completely disillusioned. At the IWAS World Games in Bangalore in 2009, I won a bronze. Yet, there was no recognition or support. It was like nobody cared. We were not well off — my father’s a farmer — and I thought it was better I took up a job. But the Paralympic Committee of India convinced me to return. I’m thankful to them.
Today, people are tripping over one another to fete you. Are you upset that they were nowhere to be seen in times of hardship?
No, I don’t look at it that way. My old achievements hardly came to anybody’s attention, while The Paralympics are big. So I don’t blame them. I like to think that my persistence has finally been rewarded. But I get what you’re saying. There are some people who’ve tried to piggyback on my success.
Now about the Paralympic Games; had you experienced something like that before?
No, not ever. There were almost 90,000 people in that stadium. It was extraordinary. I realised that the way the event is treated there is completely different from the Indian view. They make no distinction between the Olympics and the Paralympics. They cheered us with the same passion.
In what way is it different?
Look, in other countries, para-sport is professional. That’s how the competitions and athletes are treated. In India, it is more a social event. That’s why China had so many athletes (282) and we had only 10, one of the smallest contingents. We don’t want that; we don’t need anybody to support us out of pity.
Do you feel your achievement will help change things?
I sure hope so. When I won my medal, I first dedicated it to India’s differently-abled community. Many parents are completely unaware or discourage their children from para-sports because they think nothing is going to come of it. I want to show them that something can actually come of it.