Para shooting medal winners of the Tokyo Paralympics team narrate to Vishal Duggal their experiences
Avani Lekhara, Gold, R2-10m Rifle Standing Women; bronze, R8-50m Rifle 3 Position Women
I sustained spinal cord injuries in a road accident on February 20, 2012. I was 10. I became paralysed below the waist. I was in hospital for about three months and underwent surgery. The doctors felt traumatic paraplegia cannot be treated as of now, while hoping it will be possible in the future.
I was very angry at my physical condition. Prior to the accident, I participated in school activities including dance. I was in mental agony. I had no desire to talk to anyone. I could not be admitted to school, and I was housebound for two years. I passed examinations by studying at home. Then my father got me admitted to a school, KV–3, Jaipur, where the entire staff, teachers and students were very supportive. Many of the girls became my friends.
One day, my father took me to the shooting range at Jagatpura. I saw athletes doing shooting and archery. I found it interesting. My father gave me Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography. After reading it, I was inspired to take up shooting. I started going to the shooting range from April 2015 regularly. There was no ramp there and I had difficulty in using my wheelchair. My wheelchair was not a standard one. I also did not have the gun and shooting kit. I met a coach who helped me and gave me full support. He allowed me to use his gun and shooting kit.
In July 2015, I won a gold medal at a state-level competition. Thereafter, I participated in regional and national games on behalf of my school and won gold medals. My success was highly appreciated in the school. In 2015, I won the bronze medal at the national championships. All this instilled confidence in me that I could reach the top in shooting.
In 2016, I won gold medals, competing against able-bodied players. That year was inspirational as I won gold in the 10m air rifle para shooting competition at the state and national levels. I was selected for the Al Ain Para Shooting World Cup 2017 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I won silver with a score of 244.5 against the 247.5 of the gold medallist.
I secured a Paralympic berth for India at Al Ain, coming fourth in the 10m standing competition with a score of 618.7. I was hugely excited about participating in the Tokyo Paralympics. It was my first Games and I was immensely stressed. I have prepared with Sumitha Nair, physiotherapist; Subir Debnath, physical trainer, and Suma Shirur, high performance coach since 2019. I owe a lot to them. My achievements are due to the blessings of God, and the support of my parents.
Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those cards you hold well.
Manish Narwal, Gold, Mixed 50m Pistol
On life changing after winning the medal . The love and respect of my countrymen has been overwhelming. Our lifestyle has changed overnight – meeting so many people, including the prime minister … it’s a wonderful feeling getting so much love, appreciation, attention and honour. The government of Haryana has been giving several incentives; the new generation of sportspersons is getting ample motivation. We are getting motivated to do even better in upcoming Games.
Path to glory
I started professional shooting in 2016. Before that I loved athletics – running, long jump, high jump – and football and wrestling, among other sports. Football has been my favourite game. I have congenital impairment in my right hand and I cannot raise it. I participated in the Para Shooting World Cup in Thailand, winning a gold and a silver. In the 2018 Asian Games, I won gold and silver again and in the 2019 World Championships I won bronze. In 2020 I was honoured with the Arjuna Award. I also won gold in the Al Ain 2021 Para Shooting World Cup.
Inspiration and support system
My family, of course, and then my coaches. The person who lifted me from the ground and helped me take to the skies is Rajesh Singh Thakur. He is an excellent coach. He picked me at grassroots level and trained me. My national coach, Subhash Rana Sir, is also an inspiration for me; he stood by me at every international competition and the credit for my Tokyo Paralympics medal goes to him. And J.P. Nautiyal Sir, who treated me as family.
What more needs to be done
I feel more awareness about the Paralympics and the achievements of Paralympians is still required to be generated among the public to bring these Games on a par with sports like cricket in India. If a star cricketer changes the brand of his shoes, it becomes news but Paralympians hardly enjoy such media and public attention. I believe all sportspersons, whether able-bodied or para athletes, work really hard to participate in national and international events so they deserve similar attention.
Singhraj Adhana, Silver, Mixed 50m Pistol SH1; bronze, P1 Men’s 10m Air Pistol SH1
The kind of warm welcome we received in terms of people mobbing us to shake hands and congratulate us and get our autographs – we had never experienced such adulation.
We are thankful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for supporting para athletes all along. Other than the government, the media has also played an important role in raising awareness about us, no wonder the people admire us so much.
Despite polio-impaired lower limbs, I started shooting in October 2017, and the journey of the past three years has been marvellous despite some ups and downs. It’s an expensive sport, particularly the 50m event in which I won silver. There was a time when I thought of selling the family jewellery. I was confident the sun would emerge from the dark clouds of uncertainty, and I would do well. I am happy my dream is fulfilled.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the three-month lockdown hampered my training. With my sights set on Tokyo, I had sleepless nights as I could not start training. I asked my coach if I could make my own shooting range and he liked the idea.
Then I discussed it with my family and collected the money. I developed 50-metre and 10-metre shooting ranges of international level in my village, Uncha Gaon, Ballabhgarh, in Faridabad.
Then I deposited money for import of international ammunition. However, I did not get ammunition regularly. So I contacted the village pradhan, D.G. Sai, and he helped in getting the ammunition.
Thanks to this preparation, I won gold and silver while participating in the Al Ain 2021 Para Shooting World Cup.
When I returned to India, I got infected with the coronavirus but Rajesh Nagar, the Ballabhgarh MLA, arranged for treatment and I recovered.
My grandfather, Subedar Major Sumera Ram Adhana, represented the country in both the First and Second World Wars. I grew up hearing tales of his valour. I was inspired and wanted to serve the country like him.
What more needs to be done
Be it able-bodied or disabled, all athletes put in similar effort for the honour of their country. Our competition is no way lower than those of able-bodied athletes. The government has also been treating us equally.
But we do require much more financial support because the cost of living, medicines and various other requirements, such as special training and other needs, is far higher than for able-bodied athletes. Even if we could get financial support equal to what able-bodied athletes get, that would be enough. Thanks to Sports & Youth Affairs Minister Sandeep Singh who keeps discussing our issues and problems and offering solutions, Haryana will do even better in sports in future.
Mahavir Swaroop Unhalkar, 4th, Men’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1
On his performance
I am disappointed that I was fourth with a score of 203.9 while the bronze went to Jinho Park of Korea who scored 224.5. But I am glad I did my best.
On the support
Overall, there is a lot of support from the government, and we get support from the Paralympics Committee and encouragement from the sports ministry too.
Once you have secured the Games berth, everyone’s attention comes towards you. But if you had got the attention and support before, you would have been able to prepare even better.
I faced problems like unavailability of training for a few days due to the lockdown. When I used to practise in Pune, apart from my coaches and support staff, foreign coaches also used to come in between so there was scope to learn from them too. However, that did not happen during the pandemic and as soon as the lockdown was over, practice went on for two months. My coach, Kiran Kandhari, and I practised in Pune. Then our camp was held in Delhi from June 30 till the Paralympics. And arrangements were made for us at the Karni Singh Shooting Range. We got support from the Maharashtra government and Sports Authority of India (SAI), so we did not face many problems. But the regular practice we used to do got hampered.
Though suffering from polio, I was inspired by the medals of Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang and took up shooting. I got support from the academy of Gagan Narang, Gun For Glory; the Kolhapur MLA, Chandrakant Dada Patil; Chairman, Para Shooting at Paralympics Committee of India, J.P. Nautiyal and the support staff. At every step of my journey, I met people who supported me.
My parents supported me though our financial condition was not very good. They kept motivating me and my friends also supported me.
J. P. Nautiyal, Chairperson, Para Shooting – Sports Technical Committee, Paralympics Committee of India
Change on the anvil
The government has been making efforts to provide all possible help before competitions. Our old approach, “First, win the medal and then you will be rewarded” is changing. Also, families now understand the importance of sports; parents have started pushing kids into sports.
As Chief National Coach of the para shooting team, I am very happy we got two golds, a silver and two bronzes at the highest level of competition.
Para sports in India
Para athletes now have greater access to the arenas. There is greater empathy and acceptability for para sport. But society has to be more sensitive towards sportspersons.
I am happy with the help of the Government of India. The word ‘divyang’ used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is inspiring.
Need of the hour
A systematic approach is needed to develop para sports. Para athletes require more assistance, better customised equipment, more encouragement. Unfortunately, participation of corporates has not been encouraging. It is evident from the difference between the financial incentives announced for Neeraj Chopra and for our five medallists.
Vivek Saini, Manager, Para Shooting Team
The country has progressed with the new ecosystem under which athletes are provided ample support. Through these efforts we have been able to increase our medals tally. This time our Paralympians won 19 Paralympic medals. Our para shooters won five medals for the country. People earlier did not know much about para shooting. Overall, it’s a feeling of pride that India has earned a distinct place in para shooting and people are recognising it. They now get in touch with us to know more about our experiences.
If we talk about our para shooting team, there are winners and those who have lost only with negligible margins. For example, Swaroop Unhalkar lost the medal with a narrow margin. Rubina Francis, the daughter of a motor mechanic, finished seventh in the women’s 10m air pistol SH1 final.