He has won the Olympic gold, World Championship gold, holds the world record in javelin throw, and is the first para-athlete to have been conferred the Padma Shri. Meet Devendra Jhajharia, who has overcome various adversities to make India proud on the global stage. Thanks to the support from GoSports Foundation and the Indian government’s Target Olympic Podium scheme, the javelin thrower 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.
Can you recall 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 was apparently an 11,000-volt cable. So severe was the accident that let alone my left 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 that 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 my 10th standard, I started practising every day, and soon became district champion in the Open category. I was giving it all I had because I was desperate to prove I was stronger than others. I kept on winning medals in inter-college, district, and State events. In 2002, my coach RD Singh helped me participate in the Para-Asian Games, and I came back from my first overseas tour with a gold medal, after breaking the Games record. I had no clue about Para-sports till I reached college.
Your gold medal at Athens 2004 came against all odds. How much has the scenario changed for Indian para-sports 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 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. Only when you play tournaments 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 getting bogged down by the pressure. 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 respect, the exposure has been instrumental in Indian para-athletes’ improved performances.
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 at 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 at the World Championship. Another big change I have noticed is that sports has got more and more importance in India. Every 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. After all, you won’t find any other sportsperson in India who has a world championship medal and Olympic gold, and 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 us a sense of achievement.
How do you see your role in the 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. 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.