The javelin thrower from Churu holds the enviable record of being the first Indian athlete to win two individual gold medals at an Olympic or Paralympic event
Devendra Jhajharia already knew a lot about courage. What he needed was a moment of strength. The moment to cap a journey that had begun with a purpose “not be called weak". The moment when all else—the hurt, the disappointments, the taunts, the sacrifices, the wait, the weight of expectations—was flung into a void, as he hurled the javelin, hoping it would strike with a medal-lic cling.
It did. At a world record mark of 63.97 metres.
“I had thrown a 64m, even gone close to 65m in training, but you never know how things turn out that day," says Jhajharia over the phone from Rio, a day after winning gold in the F46-category for javelin. The 36-year-old’s historic throw launched him into new space in Indian sporting history.
On 13 September, he became the first Indian athlete to win two individual gold medals at an Olympic or Paralympic event. He bettered his own world record of 62.15, which brought him gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
“There is pressure of performance on match day," he says. “I had trained a lot for this day, my coach kept telling me that I could breach the world record. That wasn’t my priority, winning the gold was. Whenever anyone asked me, be it in New Delhi or Mumbai or anywhere before the Games, I would tell them that my only aim is winning gold. Even some of the media persons I spoke with, told me you can’t bring anything less than a gold. The benchmark had been set."
That raucous call for victory can make nerves freeze for the most seasoned of campaigners. But for Jhajharia it worked as an aid to his confidence.
“I wouldn’t say it was pressure," says Jhajharia. “It’s responsibility. I was chosen as the flag-bearer for India at the Opening Ceremony (of the Rio Paralympics). That’s what the flag-bearer has to do, to lead, to be a role model. I have 14 years of experience in the sport, they are bound to expect (medals) from me."
Hailing from a small village in Rajasthan’s Churu district, there was a time when India’s most successful athlete was unwelcome on a sports field. His friends would refuse to play with him because he was somehow different.
“When I was nine I was electrocuted, which is why they had to amputate my left hand," he said in an interview with Mint in April. “My friends did not want to play with me because they thought I would not be as good in sports anymore. Since then, there was a determination to not be called weak. That’s what made me a champion."
It took courage to pick up the javelin—his first was made out of a bamboo stick. It took courage to go out on the track, shoulder to shoulder with able-bodied children in age-group district competitions. To endure the uncomfortable stares, biting words. To aim to beat them all. Then to dream bigger: the state, the country, the continent, the world.
Jhajharia achieved it with his first Paralympics gold in 2004. He was the pioneer even then; the first Indian to win an individual gold, in Olympics or Paralympics. Jhajharia spent a sleepless night, wondering how he had done it all, whether the dream would be over if he woke up.
But things didn’t get easier. The F46 category, meant for athletes with unilateral upper limb impairment, was excluded in the next two editions: 2008 Beijing and 2012 London.
“I had trained hard for Beijing, but then we learnt that I would not be able to compete," he recalls. “The same thing happened in 2010, when they announced that the event would not be included for the 2012 London Games. I had a knee injury in the same year and it was difficult to carry on. I thought, ‘What should I do now?’ By then I was married and we had to take a decision. My wife (Manju) is also a sportsperson (kabaddi player) and we had a daughter by then. One of us would have to give up sports and look after the house, my wife opted to do it." He was further driven to make her sacrifice worth it.
Jhajharia was twelve years a slave to hope. Looking for it past the darkness and the doubts. He kept fit, trained regularly. Waiting for his chance, maybe his final chance.
“At 36, you have to train harder. Any injury can be career-threatening, recovery takes longer," he says.
His disability classification category was reinstated for Rio, lending a spring to his stride. He made the cut for the Games by winning the silver medal at the IPC Athletics World Championships in October, 2015 in Doha with a throw of 59.06m.
He was back on the Olympics stage, 12 years after he had stood on the top pedestal of the podium, his “last wish in life", he says. So much had changed, so much had remained the same. India now took their para sports more seriously, assigned one-on-one coaching to Rio-bound athletes. Jhajharia wouldn’t this time be India’s only medallist. Three athletes: Mariyappan Thangavelu (high jump, gold), Varun Singh Bhati (high jump, bronze) and Deepa Malik (shot put, silver), had already made that leap.