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When the moment came, he slipped.

Suyash Jadhav had qualified for the Rio Paralympics (7-18 September) and was looking to cement his position as a front-runner for the quadrennial event. He had arrived in the December chill of Szczecin, Poland, blanketed with confidence and excitement. His coach, Prasanta Karmakar, was so confident that Jadhav would do well in the pool that he bought him a costume worth 15,000 ahead of the competition.

“The first event was the 50m butterfly," the 22-year-old Jadhav recalls.

“But I slipped and failed to reach the qualifying time again. The coaches had a lot of faith in me. Swimmers from all over the world were competing. There was that pressure in the 200m IM (individual medley), but I told them that I will make the time in the 50m butterfly, which is the first stroke in the medley. And I did."

Not for the first time, Suyash would not let a quirk of fate defeat him.

***

Jadhav is a double amputee and the only Indian swimmer to achieve the minimum qualification standard (MQS) for this year’s Rio Paralympics.

He lost his hands in a freak accident when he was just 11. “I was in class VI then," Suyash says. “It was one of my cousins’ wedding. All of us kids were playing with some steel rods, which were lying around. We were balancing them on our hands. We didn’t realize that there were live wires hanging. I got electrocuted by one of them when the rod was in my hands."

The son of a physical education schoolteacher, Narayan Jadhav, Suyash was introduced to sport early. His father, a national swimmer, also wrestled and played kho-kho, and had sporting aspirations for his son. At the age of 3, Suyash learnt swimming and went on to become a regular in Maharashtra’s inter-school games. But the accident broke the family’s spirit.

“I wouldn’t say my father’s response was negative, but he thought that I won’t be able to do anything in life," recalls Suyash. For the next two years, he was dependent on his family for most things.

“Yes, the attitude towards differently abled people is changing, but a lot needs to be done," he says. “My relatives never used to treat me the same after I lost my hands. They looked at me as someone with disability. I come from a village in Solapur, and unfortunately, there people still treat specially abled people differently."

I have learnt from my seniors that swimming is only 2% of the performance. Discipline, dedication, mentality make up the rest.

The classroom provided some solace. Since his father worked in the same school, the teachers and students supported him. “When I was in hospital after the accident, the doctors had taught me how to write. I went back to school in class VII and did very well in the first exam."

Seven months after the accident, Suyash and his family went on an outing to Trimbakeshwar, Nashik, the source of the Godavari river. He was watching his cousins play in a sacred pond, and his father, sensing his wistfulness, asked him to enter the water. As soon as he was back in the water, it was like nothing had changed.

It gave new life to his athletic career. “It’s true I had learnt swimming when I had both my hands. But I didn’t find it too different or difficult to swim even without them," he says, between forkfuls of food. The ends of his arms twitch with life as he has his lunch with a spoon and fork.

By his late teens, Suyash had learnt to do most things by himself. He wanted to be independent.

Is there anything he can’t do?

“I can’t do small things, like fastening buttons on a shirt."

***

He has his eyes set on big things.

Two years after his accident, Suyash was introduced to para sports by Umesh Godse, himself a para athlete. “Our family didn’t know there are competitions for specially abled people as well," Suyash recalls. “We came to know about a state meet in Nashik, about 8-10 days before the event. I had no experience in a big competition like that; it was nerve-wracking."

But that dip in competitive waters was enough to get him hooked. “I have participated in about nine nationals till now, and have won two-three gold medals in each of them," he says.

In 2009, at the age of 16, he took part in his first international meet. Bengaluru hosted the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) World Games, where Suyash won a bronze medal in the 100m breaststroke.

“I was doing very well on the national circuit, but I wasn’t being selected for international meets," he says. “I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about competitions then, and maybe there were people using their influence and biases to keep me out. For six years (till 2015), I sat on the sidelines, waiting for my chance."

He continued training at the PYC Hindu Gymkhana, under the guidance of Kalpana Agashe. Around 6 hours a day were dedicated to the sport. Simultaneously, he completed his graduation: a bachelor’s in commerce from Fergusson College.

With the Paralympics approaching, he finally got his opportunity at the IWAS World Games in Sochi, Russia, last September. “It was the first time I was going out of India," he says. “I was curious about what Russia was going to be like. But on the swimming front, I was very confident. Though my family and friends were very nervous for me, I had told them I will make the qualification mark. I had already achieved it in training. It’s obviously not the same in competition, but I was confident of doing it."

In the 50m butterfly, his favourite event, he swam to a silver medal. With a timing of 33.77 seconds, he had also met the MQS, 33.92, for the S7 category for the Rio games (S1 is for the most disabled and S10 for the least). He followed it up with a bronze in the 200m individual medley. Against strong competition that included Russia and China, Suyash was able to stave off the pressure and become the first Indian para swimmer to claim a Rio berth.

The Paralympics rules state that in order to qualify for other events, a swimmer has to show s/he are competitive in those too. This is known as the minimum entry time (MET). Suyash achieved the MET in the 50m freestyle and 200m individual medley, so he could take part in those events too.

The 22-year-old needed to follow this up with strong performances to prove his consistency in international events. At the Winter Open Polish Championships in Szczecin, he clocked 34.51 in the 50m butterfly (S7 category) to win gold. He won a bronze in the 200m individual medley and improved his timing (33.89 seconds) in its 50m butterfly leg. He won another bronze (100m backstroke) and a silver (50m freestyle), returning from Poland with a haul of four medals.

At the German Swimming Championships in Wuppertal in January, he won three silver medals.

“Now I’m looking to shave a second off my timings," he says. Focused training in the pool, more hours in the gym is what it will take to make him sharper in the water. His weight sessions concentrate on increasing the strength in the legs to render more power to his kicks.

“I have learnt from my seniors that swimming is only 2% of the performance. Discipline, dedication, mentality make up the rest."

With his first Paralympics beckoning, Suyash isn’t leaving much to fate.

Suyash Jadhav is supported and funded by IndusInd Bank’s Para Champion Program, and GoSports Foundation.

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