I cannot express enough happiness at winning another Paralympic gold, that too with a world record. The biggest satisfaction is that I’ve made a billion people back home happy, with this achievement.
The journey to the podium, however, wasn’t easy. Facilities have indeed improved a lot over the years, but when you look at how paralympians are treated at times, it’s heartbreaking. It shows a distinct lack of awareness among the masses.
Despite being successful at the Paralympics, we are yet to get the same recognition and credit as Olympians. People don’t even know our names. How many would know that I was a Paralympic gold medallist before Rio? When you are differently-abled, people taunt and tease you. Society sometimes fails to understand us. You have to endure hardships, both physical and mental. That’s the reason we are usually tough mentally. Words can scar too, but the jeers have taught us to be strong.
Let me not even get to the part about no jobs being provided to us, despite being so successful. One has to look into it too.
It’s time the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI)woke up. At last year’s nationals, things were pretty messy, and there was needless infighting. PCI was suspended by the International Paralympic Committee last April, and the ban was only temporarily lifted early this year. They need to ensure things are in order so that athletes don’t suffer. Now is the time to bring more credibility and accountability to the body. On the other hand, the sports ministry and Sports Authority of India (SAI) made sure we were comfortable, and did whatever was required to get us ready for the Games. They have been a big reason for my Rio gold.
I took up the sport because of one of my coaches Sunil Tanwar (works with SAI), and not because of some system or programme. If you look at it, in India there’s no systematic coaching imparted for differently-abled people. They are taught the same way as others. Even the coaches don’t know how to teach para-athletes. Besides this, there is lack of awareness as to what sport is good for us and what is not. There is a misconception that sport is not good for differently-abled. On the contrary, it is good for the body and helps in recovery.
The two gold medals have come 12 years apart, and that shows age is but just a number, and if you have the right frame of mind and hunger, nothing can stop you. There are two reasons for my success: discipline and punctuality, and the support of my family. My mother Jeevidevi and wife Manju played the biggest roles. My wife, who too was a budding sportsperson, gave up her career after the birth of our daughter. It was a big-hearted move, and she told me that I was a better sportsperson, so I had a better chance at succeeding.
I want to take this opportunity to say that we’re different. People may not look at athletes and para-athletes differently, and our achievements may not be considered the same. I think it’s just the perception of people that needs to change. We may be recognised, but on the popularity chart, we’re not in the same league. However, remember this, we are winners too.
Devendra JhajhariaIndia’s only two-time Paralympics gold medal winner
(As told to Ravi Iyer)