Throwing for gold

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A car crash crippled Amit Kumar Saroha but through sheer drive, effort and spirit — and a little help from his friends — he’s headed to the London Paralympics, says Nishita Jha

Amit Kumar Saroha
Wheel of Fortune Amit Kumar Saroha, Photo: Garima Jain

SHORTLY AFTER A speeding truck hit his car, Amit Kumar Saroha remembers lying under the night sky among the injured. “At least I’m alive,” he thought, waiting for his brother to rescue him, “the doctors will take care of the rest.” Saroha was still immobile a week later when doctors at Sonepat’s Indian Spinal Injuries Centre told his family that he had no sensation in his legs and there was nothing more they could do for him. It took Saroha six months just to be able to use a wheelchair. The accident that didn’t kill him, made him stronger. Five years later, Saroha has thrown a one kilogram discus far enough to win two international and six national gold medals. Currently ranked No. 2 in his discipline, he looks back on those days of recovery and says, “I did not feel grateful at having survived. I did not feel lucky.”

Before the accident, Saroha, then only 25, was a fledgling property dealer and, like young men all over India, deflecting conversations about “settling down”. Every time his mother brought up the subject, he would laugh, “Abhi toh apne pair pe khada hua hoon, kisi aur ko kya sambhalunga?” (I’ve just about learnt to stand on my feet, how will I support anyone else?) In the months of physiotherapy that followed, Saroha was forced to adjust to life as a dependant. His father died soon after he saw his son lose his legs, and his brother gave up his job to care for Saroha and their mother. The trauma of the accident, combined with a guilt that he was to blame for his family’s troubles, nearly drove Saroha into depression.

At his lowest ebb he met Jonathan Sigworth, an American wheelchair rugby player on a tour of India to promote parasports. Wheelchair rugby (nicknamed ‘murderball’ for its sheer aggression) gave Saroha, a former state level hockey player, a way to keep busy. Sigworth, who had also lost his mobility in an accident, saw potential in his new recruit. Saroha was soon accompanying Sigworth to wheelchair rugby demonstrations in Gujarat, Punjab and Karnataka.

The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) World Games 2009 became part of a series of firsts for Saroha. Playing in a demonstration match of wheelchair rugby with a Brazilian team, Saroha met several para-athletes from across the world. It was also his first encounter with the Paralympic Committee of India — a body largely defunct for several years that was then beginning to scout schools and colleges for para-athletes.

This was when he learnt the official Paralympic nomenclature for his injury — F 51. Like boxing’s various weight classes ensure that bouts are fought between evenly matched fighters, the Paralympics competitor categories are stratified by severity of disability. In Saroha’s case, F denotes Field, and 51 is the level of his physical functionality — the highest level of disability in the 51-58 wheelchair athlete grouping.

In 2009, Saroha decided to abandon wheelchair rugby for individual athletic events that relied on his newly developed upper body strength — throwball (officially called boccio) and discus (his event in the London Paralympics). “I loved rugby,” he says, and he still unofficially promotes the sport, “but the overall performance depends on the team. When I lost my legs, I felt like the only person I could fight for now, was me.”

 All athletes are(track) or (field). The number that follows is a sign of their physical functionality — the lower the number in a range is, the higher the person’s disability is

 11-13

Athletes who are visually impaired*

 20

Athletes who are intellectually disabled

 31-38

Athletes with cerebral palsy

 41-46

Amputees and les autres (the others)**

 51-56

Wheelchair track athletes

 51-58

Wheelchair field athletes
* Blind athletes compete in class 11 and are permitted to run with a sighted guide, while field athletes in the class are allowed the use of acoustic signals, for example electronic noises, clapping or voices, if they compete in the 100m, long jump or triple jump.
** Those with unclassified disabilities

 

Once Saroha began to excel at discus and throwball (he won a silver medal at his first National Games), the government of Haryana took notice. Between prize money and matching contributions from the government, Saroha now earns Rs 15 to Rs 30 lakh each time he wins a national medal. Along with his job as a coach, he is able to provide enough to support his brother, nieces and mother. Among the three wheelchair athletes that Saroha now coaches, Shaukat Gilani, a Kashmiri, is one of the main contenders at discus-throw in India and therefore a competitor; a fact that leaves Saroha unfazed. “Once I’m done with the Paralympics,” he says gleefully, “I have a free stay in Kashmir waiting for me.”

In 2010, having already qualified for the 2012 Paralympics at the Asian Para Games, Saroha met the 30-year-old Naval Singh, a former National javelin thrower, and his coach for the upcoming Paralympics. After he switched to boccio and discus, he had trained under a series of different visiting coaches. Sigworth was the closest Saroha had come to a proper coach. Saroha says that Singh treats him like his own son, though the two are the same age. “None of this would be possible without him,” he says emotionally, “he left his family at home to look after me and train me day and night. All we think and speak about is the medal.”

Singh, who has trained athletes with spinal injuries in the past, believes his main challenge lies in customising training regimes for each para-athlete given the intensity and location of the injury. While Saroha can only use his upper body to actually throw the discus, it is Singh who ensures Saroha does not push himself too hard and aggravate the lesion on his spine. Singh is reserved when asked what he has learnt from Saroha — “I cannot allow myself time for sentimentality. I just know that medal is within our reach, and we’re going to do everything we can to get it.”

While Saroha has not seen the competition that awaits him at the London Paralympics on 29 August, he is confident of his own skill and preparation. “The entire country wants me to win, I know they are praying for me,” he smiles. How does that make him feel? “Lucky to be alive.”

Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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