No words needed
Wrestler Virender Singh is India’s most successful deaf athlete, but he’s still struggling for a foothold.
Virender Singh can’t hear the morning call for training, but he’s up at 4am anyway. He’s almost always the first to wake up, the result of a finely-tuned inner clock, and it’s his job to rouse the other wrestlers at Delhi’s Chhatrasal akhara, or wrestling school.
By 4.30am, large, muscular silhouettes begin lining up in one corner of the stadium. One by one, a few of the floodlights begin to come on. The coach walks in. Virender does a silent count of the trainees and then claps once. The training begins.
Virender, 26, can’t hear or speak, but he sure can fight. He won India’s first and only gold medal at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne, in 74-84kg freestyle wrestling, a silver medal at the second World Deaf Wrestling Championships in 2008 in Yerevan, Armenia, and a bronze at the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan. On 7 September, he won a bronze at the 2012 World Deaf Wrestling Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. That’s four medals at the only four international competitions Virender has fought in.
“Wrestling is my life,” he says through his interpreter. “This is my home.”
Chhatrasal akhara is where the current generation of India’s most successful wrestlers learnt their craft. Sushil Kumar, India’s only two-time individual Olympic medal winner, began his wrestling career here. So did Yogeshwar Dutt, bronze-medallist at the 2012 Olympics. It’s only natural that India’s most successful deaf athlete also calls it home.
“I used to wrestle with him when we were children,” Kumar says of Virender, “and I still train with him. As a wrestler he’s up there with the best. He can take on anyone, it doesn’t matter if they can hear and he can’t.”
In wrestling circles, Virender’s real name is lost. Everyone simply knows him as Goonga Pehelwan. This may seem politically incorrect, but few wrestlers or coaches are aware of that. To them, the name represents a badge of pride—there are other deaf wrestlers in India, but only one Goonga Pehelwan . A man who takes on non-disabled wrestlers in dangals (traditional wrestling competitions) and still wins.
“He may be deaf, but he has big ears,” says Dutt. In kushti (traditional Indian wrestling) parlance, this is the highest praise for a wrestler. Repeated impact injuries leave wrestlers with swollen or “cauliflower” ears. The common belief is that the bigger the ears, the better the wrestler.
Breaking down barriers
Born in 1986 in a village near Jhajjar in Haryana, Virender was brought to Delhi by his father Ajit in 1995 for medical treatment. Ajit was then a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawan and a wrestler, and stayed at the CISF akhara in Delhi. While Virender was being treated for a recurring foot problem, Ajit’s friends advised him not to send his son back to the village.
“What future does he have there, they asked me,” says Ajit, sitting inside an old and decrepit akhara tucked away in the chaotic by-lanes of Sadar Bazar in old Delhi. “They said, let him stay here at the akhara, and go to a proper school for the deaf.”
One day, while the wrestlers at the CISF akhara were in training, Virender stepped on to the mud platform and gestured for an opponent. Ajit’s colleagues got in the ring to humour him, but soon realized that there was more to the boy. “From that day on,” Ajit says, “my friend Surinder Dagar, who is also a pehelwan, started teaching him to fight.” In a few months, Surinder and Ajit realized that Virender had more talent than the humble CISF akhara could handle, so they took him to Chhatrasal.
Ajit says the family found out about Virender’s deafness when he was a year old. For years, they took the young boy to doctors, shamans, Ayurveda practitioners, even Baba Ramdev, who advised Kapalbhati (a yogic breathing exercise) twice a day. “He said it will cure Virender in a year,” Ajit says. “We never tried it. We stopped being concerned about his deafness, because we knew that God compensates. Look at him now. He’s stronger than anyone else in the family. He’s cleverer too. He’s the first one in the family who can use a computer and send messages on the phone.”
In 2001, a 16-year-old Virender was selected for the trials for the World Cadet Wrestling Championships. He came first in the trials, but the Wrestling Federation of India decided not to send him, say Virender and his coaches. “They told us that it’s not meant for people with disabilities,” Ajit says. Virender was heartbroken. He was ready to give up wrestling. “For years I had been watching other wrestlers going for tournaments, and I really thought I was going to go for this one,” Virender says. “I felt lonely and left out. I cried a lot. I asked myself what was wrong with me. I just did not understand why I could not go.”
Later, he would learn that no such restrictions impede deaf wrestlers. People with hearing loss are free to compete at the Olympics. In the 2012 London Games, there were three deaf athletes in the US contingent. “I train here with people who can hear and speak, and I want to compete with people who can hear and speak,” Virender says. “I want to fight in the Olympics”. But he can’t compete at the national level against non-disabled wrestlers, or appear for trials, since there are no provisions for visual or tactile cues for deaf competitors at these events.
"For years I had been watching other wrestlers going for tournaments, and I really thought I was going to go for this one."
On the day we meet Virender, there are more pressing problems at hand. The 2012 World Deaf Wrestling Championships are just five days away, and Virender’s participation is far from sure. Virender says he had sent in his application to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) on 1 August, but got no reply. The All India Sports Council of the Deaf (AISCD), he says, is defunct. Virender is gesturing furiously now. At this moment, Kumar comes into the room where we are sitting to assure Virender that he is doing everything he can to get him to Bulgaria. He points at Virender, makes the sign for an aeroplane, and then a thumbs-up. Two days later, the sports ministry intervened to send Virender to the championships.
There was no response from the SAI on this issue despite repeated attempts. The AISCD is severely underfunded; it has been getting a grant of Rs.12 lakh every year since 2005 to organize national games for 25 different disciplines. The last time national games were held for deaf athletes was in 1998, says AISCD secretary general E. K. Jose. “Unfortunately, most of the members of AISCD, even the president and treasurer, have no knowledge to correspond with SAI and other organisations,” says Jose. “They cannot write or read English and have no knowledge of accounts.” Despite that, the AISCD, Jose says, already has plans to send 40 athletes to the 2013 Deaflympics in Bulgaria.
In 2005, Virender had to pay himself to make his way to the Deaflympics, where he was the lone Indian wrestler. It was exactly the same for the 2008 World Deaf Wrestling Championships, though both times he was compensated by the sports ministry after winning medals, he says.
Virender has never fought a competition on the mat in India. Instead, he makes his money from dangals, which make no distinctions in terms of the physical abilities of athletes—if you can fight, you’re in. Virender says he fights 20-25 dangals a year, and can win anything between Rs.5,000 and Rs.20,000 per competition. “There are no whistles to stop the fight at dangals,” Virender says. “They go on till one wrestler has pinned the other to the ground, so they don’t have to make any special arrangements for me.”
Like most wrestlers at Chhatrasal, he lives in rooms under the ramparts of the stadium. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor, packed into a tiny space with eight other wrestlers, including his interpreter. All his possessions fit into a cheap, medium-sized duffel bag, from where he takes out a package carefully wrapped in a plastic sheet. He unwraps the plastic to show us his international medals and certificates, his eyes shining, and his face breaking into a wide smile. He makes a thumbs-up sign.
“You come and interview me when I bring back a medal,” he says.
A few days later, that’s just what he did.
Go ahead, jump!
India’s lone medal winner at the 2012 London Paralympics says he was born to be an athlete.
Girisha Hosanagara Nagarajegowda had never seen anything like it.
A shiny floodlit stadium, 80,000 screaming spectators, and flashlights going off faster than he could blink. His debut at the 2012 London Paralympics felt unreal, he says, like an out-of-body experience, just standing there inside the stadium. “I was tingling all over, I could hardly breathe,” he says. “I realized I had to get over this feeling, or I won’t be able to jump.”
So Girisha, India’s high jump qualifier for the Paralympics, spent a couple of days practising how to tune out the stadium atmosphere. “By the time my event came up, all I could hear and see was the area where I had to jump.” The 24-year-old from Karnataka did not even know how close he was to a medal when he made his final clearance, 1.74m, on 3 September at the Olympic stadium in London.
“When I finally realized I had won the medal, I just picked up the flag and stood there and readjusted my eyes and ears to hear and see the crowd roar,” he says, lounging in a café in Noida late Tuesday evening, with the oversized silver medal hanging from his neck.
“See how heavy it is,” he offers. It is much heavier than it looks. “I haven’t had a chance to take the medal off my neck since I landed in Delhi this morning,” he says, laughing. It is only the third silver medal India have won since their Paralympic debut in 1968, and the first one in 28 years.
Everything about Girisha’s jump is extraordinary. He was the only athlete who jumped barefeet. Born with a deformed left leg with no muscular strength, he had tried everything from running shoes to track and field spikes, “but they all hurt so much, I could not really take-off,” he says. So he devised his own system—barefoot on the right, and a flip-flop on his left foot for stability, improvised by Girisha himself from an ordinary pair of slippers.
The jumping technique too is something he has improvised.
When he first began training in 2008 at the SAI centre in Bangalore, coaches had tried to streamline his jump, trying both the archaic Scissors-Jump technique, where you lead with the legs, and the Fosbury Flop method, followed by athletes around the world, where you lead with the head and shoulders. But nothing was as good as Girisha’s own style, a cross between the Scissors-Jump and the Fosbury Flop. Girisha leads with his legs, but as he begins clearing the bar, he arches his back in the Fosbury Flop way to gain more height.
“It’s an incredible act of contortion,” says his coach Satyanarayana. “I don’t know too many athletes who have the flexibility to pull that off.”
Girisha was not supposed to be in the Indian contingent to London. In 2009, after winning a bronze at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports event, he was despondent at the lack of support, and quit sports.
“I had no money, no rewards, no job, and not one person to support me,” he says. “I told myself that I will never compete again.” He enrolled himself for BPO training with a Bangalore-based NGO called Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled. Samarthanam pushed him to restart his sports training; if nothing else, they told him, then just for fitness. In June 2011, Girisha joined the ING Vysya bank in Bangalore on contract as a clerk. The HR manager of the bank, Girisha says, asked him one day about why he had given up his sporting career. The bank decided to fund Girisha’s training and competitions.
“I cannot express how big that help was for me,” Girisha says. “It changed my life.” Sponsored by the bank, Girisha went on to win gold at the Kuwait Para Athletics Championships, and the Malaysian Para Athletics Championships earlier this year, his first international competitions since 2009. It opened the way to the London Paralympics, and Girisha went back to training at the SAI, this time also attracting the attention of Sahana Kumari, India’s sole high jump competitor at the 2012 London Olympics, and her Russian coach Evgeny Nikitin. “They were there every day giving me tips and encouragement while they were preparing for the Olympics,” Girisha says.
There were other changes too. The Karnataka government gave him Rs.1 lakh for training, and the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) sent the entire contingent of 10 athletes to England for 20 days of training acclimatization before the event.
“After spending most of my life just doing things on my own, it was such a change to get the right kind of support,” he says.
Like most other sports federations, the PCI is also mired in controversy. In February 2011, it was the sports ministry suspended it, citing a long list of irregularities. Recognition was restored in November, but the PCI was in trouble again during the 2012 Paralympics, with the sports ministry issuing it a show-cause notice after athletes complained that PCI officials had gone for the Games at the expense of coaches and escorts. Satyanarayana, for example, is the joint secretary of the PCI, and was named the high jump coach only in August. PCI vice-president Vijay B. Munishwar was named the powerlifting coach, leaving out the coach of Farman Basha, India’s top powerlifter. Basha was one of the first to speak up. PCI secretary general Ratan Singh refutes the allegations. He claims the 10 athletes were given six officials (as per IPC rules), which included two coaches, two escorts and two PCI members.
A wild child
“I am not disabled,” Girisha says.
“Ever since I remember, I thought it was perfectly natural that I have one strong leg and one leg for support. As a child I was the best athlete in my village, and spent most of my time playing.” His parents, both farmers in Hosanagar in Karnataka’s Hassan district, were concerned about Girisha’s condition when he was a baby, but by the time he was 10, their concerns had undergone a radical shift. “I had way too much energy,” Girisha says. “After school, I would spend hours playing, and then I would go climb trees. I only went home for dinner, and my parents would be angry.”
"I had no money, no rewards, no job, and not one person to support me. "
His house had a wooden fence, and his father, upset at the wild ways of his son, would chase him around the courtyard—Girisha would jump over the fence to escape. Thrilled by his own abilities, Girisha would steal cassette tapes from his parents, cut up the tape, and fix it between two trees to challenge his friends to jump over it. He would always win, he says. Of more concern was his love for swimming. Girisha often cut school to go swimming in the Cauvery, or in nearby canals. If his friends were too tired, he would just swim alone.
Girisha’s early sporting career too made no distinction of his disability. He was a champion athlete for his school, and won his first state-level sports meet in college competing with non-disabled athletes.
“I was born to be an athlete,” Girisha says.