In 1992, Surendra Yadav and his wife Kumkum were dismayed to discover that their two-year-old son, Sharad, had received a spurious polio vaccination, and had developed polio myelitis. While almost 90 percent of polio infections do not show any symptoms, in Sharad’s case, the virus entered his central nervous system, affecting his spine, destroying his motor neurons and causing an asymmetric paralysis of the left leg. He shows no signs of resentment as he recalls the brutal honesty with which his father informed the family about his decision to send Sharad (then four) and his eight-year-old brother away to boarding school. “He told me, ‘They will look after you better than I can right now.’ We were in a financially tough situation. I’m glad he took that decision.”
Most of Sharad’s earliest memories are from St Paul’s in Darjeeling. Thankfully, the only distinction between boarders was made on the basis of seniority — something that Sharad believes shielded him from worrying much about how he was ‘different’ from everyone else. Around Class VII, when he began to avidly participate in sports like tennis and basketball, he felt like he had finally come into his own. “I was breaking all the sporting records my seniors had set, especially my brother’s, and it felt really good,” he laughs. The only instance he remembers of being heckled for his disability in school was at an inter-school event, where the competing school’s champions took offence to the fact that their girlfriends were giving Sharad a little too much attention. Needless to say, retelling this story does not make him uncomfortable so much as it makes him smile.
‘Given the competition between able-bodied athletes, it’s impossible to create another Sachin. That spot is still open for us,’ says Sharad
Around the age of 15, Sharad became conscious of the fact that there was a limit to which he could excel — a limit that did not exist for able-bodied athletes. “I began to feel like there was always someone who’d be able to run faster, jump higher and move better simply because all their limbs worked,” he says. At this time, a teacher told him about the Paralympics and Sharad began to see his disability as an advantage, something that gave him purpose.
This newly focussed ambition saw him move to Delhi, where he could begin training for the National Paralympics under a professional coach. Accustomed to living away from home, Sharad says the only thing that truly terrified him was joining a co-educational school. “My father always said, if you can’t be famous, be mischievous — so I got into a lot of trouble, made a lot of friends, had a good time,” he says, as if explaining why he has only one gold medal to show for his two years at Delhi’s Modern School. Once school was over, however, training began in earnest. Sharad was introduced to the Paralympic Committee of India in 2009. With steady attention, his 1.65 m high jump had improved to 1.75 m.
Ever since he qualified for the Paralympics in the A category five months ago, he has been training under Nikitan Uffgan, a 55-year-old Russian coach who was originally flown in to train able-bodied athletes. “Since he’s on a contract and he found no one to train, the Sports Authority of India delegated him to me,” says Sharad, who has now perfected a mixture of sign-language and broken English to communicate with his new coach. Uffgan, unlike other coaches who trained Sharad under the same schedule as able-bodied athletes, focuses on developing the strength of Sharad’s polio-affected leg. For instance, Sharad is required to walk nearly 800 m every day on his heels to improve his calf-strength. Uffgan has also taught Sharad a useful technique to play down his limp and ‘normalise’ his walking technique (and, therefore, his runup) — ramp walking. “He used to hold a dictionary in one hand to talk to me initially. We’ve come a long way since — no one knows the strengths and weaknesses of my body better than Uffgan. He makes training fun.” Under his new coach, Sharad is now jumping 1.80 m, the highest anyone in the world with his disability can currently jump.
Media reporting of para-athletes has often been criticised for emphasising handicaps rather than actual athletic prowess, making them look like paper tigers compared to their able-bodied counterparts. “Initially, the Indian government treated us that way too, they called us the ‘tooti-phooti team’,” he says. Did it bother him? The grin reappears, “Given the population and competition between able-bodied athletes, it’s almost impossible for them to create another Sachin Tendulkar. That position is still open for us.” And Sharad is certainly applying.
Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.