India once again made history at the ongoing Tokyo Paralympics, thanks to shooter Avani Lekhara who clinched a gold in the women’s 10m air rifle standing SH1 event on 30 August.
The 19-year-old from Jaipur gave India its fourth medal at the games so far after Yogesh Kathuniya’s silver in discus throw; Devendra Jhajharia’s silver and Sundar Singh Gurjar’s bronze in javelin.
As India cheers for its extraordinary talent being showcased at the Paralympics and congratulates Lekhara, we pause and rewind to veteran athletes who paved the way for hundreds of others to dream big too.
They were the first ones who believed in themselves when no one else did. They took a plunge and shattered the stigma and stereotypes around disability.
Dilraj, first woman para shooter from Dehradun, is one such history-maker.
She entered the sports profession in 2004 and self-coached for most part of her career to win several medals at the national and international level. An advocate by profession, she is also a certified coach. She has held posts as an officer in different associations like the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup, 2021.
Training with broken bricks & a dummy
Dilraj hails from a middle-class family with two older siblings. Her father was in government service and her mother was a teacher. She was born in 1982 with a congenital limb defect, which meant her left arm and leg were not fully formed at birth.
Growing up in the ’80s as a disabled was not the same as it is today. Lack of awareness and sensitisation were her biggest challenges while growing up. Fortunately, the discrimination was limited to outside of her home.
“My parents never treated me any different. I got the same punishments and rewards as my older brother and sister,” recalls Dilraj, adding, “It was my mother who motivated me to become an athlete. One of her friends informed her about the disabled (formerly called ‘Handicapped’) category in sports. She tapped my potential for shooting and 15 days later, I was competing at the state level.”
During those three months in 2004, the family helped her set up a practice place. A pile of broken bricks collected from the colony and a sack filled with stones were Dilraj’s initial companions.
Her interest in the sport grew by the day and there came a point when Dilraj started aiming at the objects in the house. From a neatly folded newspaper, a bottle to plants in her balcony, Dilraj would point at faraway objects and hit them with a paper ball.
She coached herself and the mistakes were rectified by her family members. They would sit behind her during practice sessions to provide feedback.
Her home shooting setup and coaching bore fruit as a year later she played her first national competition alongside men, as back then there was no separate category for women. Playing against the men was both challenging and exciting.
“Gender did not make as much difference as I thought it would. The only difference was they had coaches but that did not stop me from securing top positions. I still remember the walk to the podium in 2005 to collect my first national bronze medal. I had made it,” she says.
Two years later, Dilraj marked her debut at The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games in Taiwan. Dilraj has represented India in several competitions thereafter and has 24 gold medals to her name.
What happens after you make India proud?
Every athlete has personal struggles and seldom do we focus on that. What happens after the player has made the country proud on a global platform? Can they afford to continue training for their next big match in light of insufficient facilities or are they obligated to take up a job to feed their families? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed.
Merely giving laurels, photo-ops and respect is never enough. In absence of a strong financial backing, a player can do only so much. Dilraj took enormous efforts to continue her game while supporting her family.
She undertook training at the International Para Committee to become India’s first para sports educator with an aim to secure a government job as well as para promoting sports in 2018.
“I had to put myself out there to stay relevant and earn a livelihood. I have played multiple roles as a coach, jury and equipment officer but it was not enough. After my father and brother’s death in 2020, I was forced to sell biscuits and chips at a kiosk to pay for food and rent. The financial ordeals can be avoided with the right support from the government,” she says.
Even though Dilraj has given tremendous amounts of blood and sweat to train for competitions, discrimination has been the price she has had to pay as a para athlete. She claims to have received only Rs 10,000 at a felicitation ceremony of the state in 2016 while the other able-bodied athletes got Rs 1,00,000.
“Being a sportswoman from a middle-class family has its own challenges and it gets worse for a person with disabilities. I wish I didn’t have to fight for what I deserved all my life,” she adds. Her only wish is to get a stable government job.
However, the flip side to this coin was the shift in people’s behaviour and mentality. The once pitiful looks were replaced with respect and dignity as soon as Dilraj won her first international competition in 2007. According to her, several people in her region started sending their children for shooting practices after her success.
She is also glad to see that citizens and media of this country are paying attention to the Paralympics.
The Better India spoke to Dilraj just a few minutes after her junior, Avani won a gold medal. Commenting on this victory, she says, “I feel so proud about Avani’s victory; I feel like I have won a medal too. In my time, people barely even considered the possibility of a woman being a shooter. Today, we have all progressed by sharing in this win.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao