Meet the Paralympians: The 19 Real-Life Heroes Carrying a Nation’s Hopes on Their Able Shoulders
The Olympics may be done and dusted but another Indian contingent is off to Brazil again, hoping to do better. Meet Team India's 19 incredible sportsmen and sportswomen who redefine the boundaries of possibility with their spirit and performances.
Para-sports (short for ‘parallel sports’) have allowed hundreds of people with disabilities to take control of their lives, giving them economic freedom and respect in a society that generally looks down on the physically-challenged.
From a small gathering of injured British World War II veterans in 1948, Paralympics has grown into one of the largest international sporting events in the world today. The Para Games are exciting, entertaining and a celebration of disabled people’s talents and strength. And the Rio Paralympics, which start today, promise to be just this and more.
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At the Rio Paralympics 2016, the world will be closely following the achievements of the competitors and cheering them on. India will be represented at the event by a contingent of 19 athletes, comprising 3 women and 16 men, the largest-ever sent from the country.
Raring to bring laurels to the nation, the talented squad will participate in nine different events, which include swimming, high jump, discus throw, running, and javelin throw, among others. In a fine gesture, the Sports Ministry has announced that medallists from the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro will be given cash awards at par with the medal winners of last month’s Olympic Games.
Here’s everything you need to know about Team India’s 19 incredible sportsmen and sportswomen who redefine the boundaries of possibility with their spirit and performances.
1. Amit Kumar Saroha – Club throw
The 31-year-old Amit Kumar Saroha, who has one Para Asian Games gold and two silvers under his belt, is one of India’s most decorated para athletes. A road accident at the age of 22 left him with severe spinal injuries, tragically making him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. But Amit, a former junior national hockey player, was not willing to let fate have the final say. He soon found his calling in para-sports, especially in discus and club throw. He then went on to dish out a series of medal-winning performances at international events.
At Rio Paralympics, the Haryana lad will be competing in the F51 category of the Club Throw event.
2. Devendra Jhajaria – Javelin throw
India’s most successful Paralympic Games athlete, 35-year-old Devendra Jhajharia, will be competing in the javelin throw event at the 2016 Paralympic Games. The one-armed thrower from Rajasthan’s Churu district, who became India’s first individual Paralympic gold medallist at the Athens Games in 2004, couldn’t compete in the next two Paralympics because his category F46 (for athletes with unilateral upper limb impairment) was not included.
Devendra’s arm had to be amputated after a severe electric shock at the age of eight. His success as a javelin thrower – made tougher against the backdrop of financial disabilities – is testament to his willpower and physical prowess. The former Indian Railways staffer, who also set a world record with a javelin throw of 62.15m at Athens, booked his berth at the Rio Paralympics after clinching the silver medal at the IPC Athletics World Championships in 2015.
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3. Mariyappan Thangavelu – High jump
In March this year, when Mariyappan Thangavelu cleared a distance of 1.78m in the men’s high jump T42 event at the IPC Grand Prix in Tunisia, he won the gold medal and comfortably achieved the A-Qualification Standard of 1.60 for the Rio Paralympics. The fact that the silver medal winner at the World Championships also jumped a distance of 1.78m has given the 20-year-old Tamil Nadu lad belief that he has a real shot at a medal in Rio.
Mariyappan was five when an accident in his village of Periavadagampatti, some 50km from Salem, left him with a permanent disability. A bus ran over his right leg, crushing it below the knee and leaving it stunted for life. Never seeing himself as different from able-bodied kids, he continued to participate in competitive sports. In 2013, his current coach Satyanarayana first spotted him at the National Para-Athletics Championships and two years later took him under his wing, bringing him to Bengaluru to train for Rio.
4. Sunder Singh Gujjar – Javelin throw
Para-athlete Sunder Singh Gujjar has braved odds with a smile. The 20-year -old javelin thrower did not just clinch the Rio Olympic berth, he showed how determined he was to win a Rio medal by creating a national record of a 68.42m throw, breaking Devendra’s world record by 6m, during the 16th Para-Athletics National Championships in Panchkula.
Till November 2015, Sunder was competing in the general category and even won a junior national gold. But then he lost his left hand in an accident. Encouraged by coach R D Singh, who also paid Sunder’s expenses for the qualifying event from his own pocket, Sunder didn’t let his injury stop him from pursuing his Olympic dream. Today, he is a bright medal prospect for India at the Rio Paralympics.
5. Dharambir Nain – Club Throw
Hailing from Sonepat in Haryana, 27-year-old Dharambir Nain is a Paralympic club thrower competing in the F-51 category. Dharambir’s life changed when, while attempting to dive into water, he misjudged the depth and accidentally crashed into the underlying rocks of the water body. The result was complete paralysis below the waist.
Dharambir became familiar with para sports in 2014 and took to Club Throw under the guidance of his mentor and fellow para athlete Amit Kumar Saroha. Within a span of just two years, Dharambir improved tremendously, first securing the ‘A’ qualification mark at the 2016 Fazza IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Dubai and then subsequently confirming his qualification for the 2016 Paralympic Games by virtue of an improved performance at the Selection Trials conducted by the Sports Authority of India in July this year. Incidentally, Dharambir will be representing India at Rio in the same event as his mentor and coach Amit Saroha.
6. Deepa Malik – Shotput
An army man’s wife, mother of two, a restaurateur with a social cause, a former beauty queen, an accomplished swimmer, an adventure sportsperson, and a biker – 47- year-old Deepa Malik wears a multitude of hats and firmly refuses to let any conversation veer to sympathy that her disability often attracts. At Rio, she is bidding to get India its first medal in Paralympics shot put.
A spinal tumour, followed by three tumour surgeries and 183 stitches between her shoulder blades, left Deepa paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair in 1999. Not willing to spend the rest of her life in a closed room, this fighter decided to chase her dreams despite her condition. She became the first female athlete to represent India at the Paralympics since the country’s debut at the Games in 1968. Deepa won the Arjuna Award in 2012 for her performance in swimming. She has 54 national gold medals and 13 international medals in various sports, including swimming, javelin throw and shot put.
7. Karamjyoti Dalal – Discus Throw
Though 28-year-old Karamjyoti Dalal didn’t win a medal at the recently concluded IPC World Para-Athletics Championship (she came fourth), her meteoric rise from the bottom of the rankings to fighting for the top three positions in less than a year captured the imagination of the para-athletics fraternity.
Originally a national level kabaddi player, Karamjyoti was forced to leave the sport after a fall from her terrace. Completely bed ridden for two years and diagnosed with paraplegia, it took her about two years to become thoroughly mobile on her wheelchair. She first announced herself as a serious contender during the 2014 Asian Games, when she participated in the F-55 category for paraplegics and won two bronze medals. With every major event bringing out a world-class performance from her, this Haryana girl has rapidly graduated to being a force to reckon with.
8. Ankur Dhama – 1500m
Ankur Dhama will become the first blind Indian athlete to participate at the Paralympics when he competes in the 1500m event at Rio. A resident of Baghpat village in Uttar Pradesh, Ankur started losing his vision gradually when he was 5 years old and, by the time he turned 6, Dhama’s eyesight had completely failed. Active in sports from a young age, he first heard about the para games for the differently abled from the Indian Blind Sports Association.
He first competed internationally while still in school and since then has been consistently winning medals for the country in para races all over the world.The runner, who won the bronze and silver medals in 1500m and 800m respectively at the Para Asian Games in 2014, is looking forward to striking gold at the Paralympics and is certain that he will make a mark. Ankur will be competing in the Track 11 category for the completely blind at Rio.
9. Farman Basha- Powerlifting
Arjuna Award recipient Farman Basha is not a household name. This despite the fact that the Paralympic powerlifter has represented India at various major events, including three Paralympics, across the globe in the last 16 years. Undeterred, Farman, the only athlete from Karnataka at the 2016 Games, is all set to represent the country yet again in Rio.
The seventh of 12 children, tragedy struck Farman at a young age when he became polio-afflicted as a toddler. But far from letting his condition dictate his life, Farman persevered and worked his way up, developing an interest in hitting the gym and, later, in power lifting. His efforts paid off when, in 1998, he set a new national record in the selection trial for 49 kg powerlifting and even won a gold medal. In fact, such has been his prowess in the sport that Farman has competed and won medals even at competitions meant for able-bodied athletes. Never one to give up, the 42-year-old is hoping to make the country proud in Rio.
10. Rinku Hooda- Javelin Throw
Originally from Rohtak in Haryana, 17-year-old Indian para javelin thrower Rinku Hooda is the youngest athlete in the Indian contingent. As a young boy, Rinku lost his left arm in an accident involving a fan blade. A natural in sports, Rinku was introduced to javelin throwing by fellow Indian para athlete Amit Kumar Saroha; he relocated to the Sports Authority of India in Sonepat so that he could continue his training there.
At the 2016 IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Switzerland, Rinku recorded the ‘A’ mark for Rio. Still only 17 and facing the prospect of a selection trial against more established competitors to confirm his qualification for Rio, Rinku sprang a surprise and became one of five Indian javelin throwers from India to secure qualification for the 2016 Paralympic Games. The aspiring para-champion competes in the F-46 category for javelin throw.
11. Narendra Ranbir – Javelin Throw
Another member of the Indian Paralympic Javelin Throw squad, Narendra Ranbir will be competing in the F42 and F44 events at Rio. Born to a farming family near Sonepat in Haryana, Narender lost his parents in an accident when he was 3 years old and was almost entirely brought up by his grandmother. Narender has had a deformity in his left leg since birth. Initially a runner, Narender had to give up athletics due to chronic back problems. His passion for sport saw him quickly switch to javelin throw and he has not looked back since.
After taking to javelin throw, Narender has been consistently performing at the highest level. He finished 6th at the London Paralympics in 2012, after which he narrowly missed out on a medal at the World Championships in Lyon, finishing 4th. Narender’s best performance came at the Para Asian Games in 2014 at Incheon where he clinched the silver medal. This hard-working athlete is one of India’s top medal prospects at the Rio Paralympics.
12. Suyash Narayan Jadhav – Swimming
Fifteen years after a tragic mishap left him a double arm amputee, Maharashtra’s Suyash Jadhav has his eyes locked on winning India its first Paralympic medal in swimming. The only Indian swimmer to qualify for the Rio Paralympics, the 22-year-old will be competing in the S7 category of the 50m butterfly event. The son of a national level swimmer, Suyash wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and started swimming at a young age in his native Solapur.
However, tragedy struck when an 11-year-old Suyash touched a loose electric wire and received a massive electric shock, which resulted in both hands being amputated just short of his elbow. Suyash sealed his berth for the Rio Paralympics (his first Paralympics) with an ‘A’ qualifying mark this year. Prior to that, his major success in the pool was when he won a silver medal at the IWAS World Games in Russia in 2015 and gold at the Winter Open Polish Championships in his favourite event, the 50m butterfly.
13. Virender Dhankar – Shotput, Javelin Throw
The current world no. 1 in Javelin F57 category and world no. 5 in Shotput F57, Virender Dhankar was one of the athletes to secure a late berth at Rio 2016 following the disqualification of Russia. The only athlete to participate in two events at the Rio Paralympics, army man Virender made India proud by bagging a gold medal in the World Army Games in South Korea in 2015.
Virender was also a top kabaddi player before an accident in 2004 resulted in the amputation of his right leg. He then started pursuing para sports seriously, especially shot put and javelin throw, in 2014. The 32-year-old from Haryana is a four-time national champion and his next target is getting a medal at the Rio Paralympics.
14. Rampal Chahar – High Jump
A resident of a remote village beyond Sonepat in Haryana, 26-year-old Rampal Chahar will be competing in the T 46 category of Para High Jump at Rio. At the tender age of 4, Rampal met an unfortunate accident when his arm got caught in an agricultural chopper, resulting in partial below-elbow amputation of his right arm. Always a sports enthusiast, Rampal pursued sports in school and college, often training in high jump and casually competing with other able bodied athletes.
Rampal’s life changed when he met fellow para-athlete Amit Saroha, who introduced him to the world of para sports. In 2013, after having worked at a regular job and while pursuing sports in parallel, he quit his job to pursue high jump full time. He soon went on to break a national record. In 2016, Rampal took part in his very first international tournament at the IPC Grand Prix in Tunisia, winning the gold medal with a jump of 1.85m that comfortably surpassed the ‘A’ qualification for Rio 2016, which stands at 1.65m.
15. Sandeep – Javelin Throw
Gold medallist at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix, Sandeep will be competing in F44 (for athletes who have a single below knee amputation or who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs) category of Javelin Throw at the Rio Paralympics.
A resident of New Delhi, Sandeep comes from a family of daily wage earners. The 20-year-old suffered a severely broken hip in a near fatal car accident. He didn’t give up his love for sports despite the excruciating pain he suffers during training. He started training for javelin throw in the year 2014 and has since made big strides in the sport to qualify for Rio 2016. Currently World No. 2 in his category, he will be aiming for the gold at Rio.
16. Sharad Kumar – High Jump
Para high-jumper Sharad Kumar won a gold medal in the F42 high jump at the 2014 Asian Para Games in Incheon, Korea and has since been aiming to win the gold at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. The 24-year-old high jumper from India was diagnosed with polio mellitus which caused the paralysis of his left leg at the age of just two. Undeterred, he took up high jump at his chosen sport when he was still studying in St. Paul’s School in Darjeeling, India and went on to make his international debut in 2010 at the Asian Para Games in Guangzhou.
Feeling good after winning the high-jump title in the Malaysian Open Para-Athletics Championship, Sharad had his eyes set on being a part of the 2012 London Olympics. But an unfortunate ban due to allegations of doping forced him out of the competition for two years. Sharad returned with a bang in the 2014 Para Asian Games at Incheon, winning the gold medal in high jump and also breaking a 12-year Asian Games record. Having qualified for the Rio Paralympics, he is all set to chase the gold at the Games.
17. Pooja Rani – Archery
Born in Rohtak, Haryana, 25-year-old Pooja Rani will be hoping to follow in Sakhsi Malik’s footsteps when she competes at the Rio Paralympics 2016. The daughter of a rag seller, Pooja is from a humble background and was diagnosed with poliomyelitis during childhood. Pooja gradually became interest in para sports, especially shooting. However, with no infrastructure available for the sport of shooting in her hometown, Pooja chose to pursue her interest in archery instead and picked up the sport in 2013.
Pooja found it difficult to afford the expensive recurve archery equipment on her own, but her coach Sanjay Suhag stepped in to arrange the basic equipment. The step paid off when, in 2016, Pooja won her first major medal at the National Para Archery Tournament in Rohtak and followed that up with a 5th place finish at the World Ranking Tournament in the Czech Republic. The latter performance secured her qualification for the Paralympics where she is the lone Indian participant in the recurve archery event.
18. Naresh Kumar Sharma – Shooting
Participating in his fifth Paralympics, Naresh Kumar Sharma is often called the grand old man of India’s Paralympics campaign. He has featured in every Paralympics since 1996, missing out only in Athens 2004. Naresh contracted polio at a tender age but he overcame his disability through sheer courage, determination and his mother’s support. He became a shooter and today has more than 60 medals to his credit in the rifle shooting category.
The veteran rifle shooter is also the first para athlete from India to grab a quota for 2016 Rio Paralympics with a 12th place finish in men’s 50m rifle three position at the IPC Shooting World Cup at Fort Benning, USA. He had also narrowly missed out on a medal at the Beijing Games, where he finished fifth. Naresh will be looking to end his career with a podium finish in Rio and will expect his experience to work in his favour. He will be competing in the SH11 disability category.
19. Varun Singh Bhati – High Jump
One of India’s best high jumpers, Varun Singh Bhati suffers from a deformity in one leg as a result of contracting polio as a child. Despite the deformity, Varun took to sports in his school days and went on to compete internationally, consistently getting better at high jump since then. He will be competing at Rio in the F42 category.
Varun registered with the ‘A’ qualification mark for the 2012 Paralympics in London, with a performance of 1.60m, but failed to make the cut to London 2012. He stood 5th at the 2014 Asian Para Games in Incheon, (Korea) and won a gold medal at the 2014 China Open Athletics Championship in the same year. He also became India’s leading jumper when he recorded a jump of 1.82m at the 2016 IPC Athletics Asia-Oceania Championships, winning the gold and setting a new Asian record. The 21-year old high jumper from Uttar Pradesh is among the shining stars of the 19-member Indian contingent that has travelled to Rio de Janeiro and is the number two ranked athlete in his category.
The Olympics may be done and dusted but another Indian contingent is off to Brazil again, hoping to do better. Here’s wishing them all the very best!
Know more about the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, here.
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