Jonathan Selvaraj meets the boy from Shadipur who talks about ploughing the field, lugging sacks of fodder on his back, carrying his tired mother across the field, and, of course, the sporting dreams that fire him up
AS HE swipes his thumb along the glass screen of his large mobile phone that rarely leaves his side, little suggests Deepak Lather is anything but a regular 15-year old. He flicks past selfies featuring himself in stylish clothes, gelled hair and only the wispy hints of facial fuzz. Those pictures in turn follow bare torsoed gym-room mirror shots, photographs of himself in trendy malls in foreign shores and yet another posing with a pretty young girl. This perception of Deepak being the typical boy next door lasts until the moment his calloused thumb – a hint at a less leisurely lifestyle — stops at one particular video and presses the play button in the middle of the screen.
It’s a video shot during the recently-concluded Senior Weightlifting Nationals at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. It features Deepak himself. The smooth, pale-faced boy, here seen with hair combed in a school boyish side parting, walks up to the bar loaded with 126kg of iron weights. He grasps the knurled metal and in one seemingly fluid motion, launches the bar along his body, grazing his knees and over his head while simultaneously dropping his hips down to a half squat receiving position. His elbows lock out, catching the spinning bar in place and he finally straightens his upper body to complete the Olympic weightlifting movement known as the snatch.
As he drops the weight down, he folds his palms together and acknowledges the cheers of his peers, some a decade older than he is. Deepak has just shattered the country’s long-standing weightlifting record in Olympic snatch in the 62kg category. With three months to go before he turns 16, Deepak is the youngest Indian weightlifter with a national record.
Lather is technically the first record holder. “After the world weightlifting federation (IWF) changed the categories, the Indian weightlifting federation came up with 125kg as the Indian standard for the 62kg class. No one could be considered the record holder until he lifted that mark. But for the eight years since the Indian standard was decided, no one could,” explains Pal Singh Sandhu, a Dronacharya Award winning coach and chief referee at the nationals.
Deepak’s clean and jerk lift – the second of the two lifts of Olympic weightlifting – is a relatively more modest 141kg. But his total of 267kg is enough to win him the national championship, making him the youngest ever Indian to achieve the feat.
His achievement in the last week of 2015 was only the latest in a series of firsts. Earlier in September that year, he had become the youngest Indian to compete in the World Championships. A month before that he had – while also competing in the youth (U-17) category — beaten out rivals from the senior category to win the Commonwealth Championships. Even at this age, his coaches hold high hopes of him. “He is undoubtedly going to be one of the stars of Indian weightlifting. There’s little doubt that he can win the Commonwealth gold medal,” says Vijay Sharma, chief national coach.
While Deepak now seems to have been destined to be a weightlifter, this wasn’t always the case. His family resides in Shadipur, a farming village along Haryana’s Rohtak-Jind state highway. Father Bijender tills an acre of land, growing wheat, mustard and fodder for the family’s three cows. Deepak, currently back home for a few days’ rest for the first time in nearly two years, expected to do the same. “I went to the fields along with my father. I cut weeds, ploughed the field and then gathered the crop in April. I thought that was my future also,” he says.
Bijender had higher hopes. “I thought he should be a wrestler because he was always quite strong. Even when he was young he would pick up sacks of cut-fodder on his back. Those sacks were as heavy as he was. When he was about nine his mother was feeling tired, so he carried her from the field home,” he recalls.
Apart from watching him lift loads over two times his bodyweight over his head like they were a slightly hefty load of alfalfa, Deepak’s strength now is also displayed in a crushing vice-like grip. “He will squeeze someone’s hand really hard and then apologise. He doesn’t know his own strength,” smilingly complains Bijender.
But for all his early promise of strength, Olympic weightlifting was still implausible. Shadipur still doesn’t have a gym. The first chance of a sporting career began when the Army Sports Institute conducted trials across the state in late 2008. “Some 20 of us were chosen on our ability to run races of hundred meters, four hundred meters, one kilometre and also our standing in long jump and broad jump,” says Deepak.
Even when he received admission to the ASI, Pune, he wasn’t immediately considered a weightlifter. “I first trained as a diver. But I didn’t enjoy it and after three months they decided to reassign me to weightlifting,” he says. “I only got in because our foreign coach Juraj Gubala was not looking for experienced weightlifters but rather boys who had just started the sport, so he could teach them the technique from the start,” recollects Deepak.
Progress was initially slow as Deepak was first schooled in getting his technique perfect using just a wooden stick to mimic a bar for the first few months. But it’s a routine that coach Vijay Sharma reckons made his snatch lift one of the finest in the country. “Deepak’s advantage is that he started quite young, so his technique is perfect. He will get stronger as he gets older, but once your technique is set, it is difficult to modify it,” says Sharma.
A cursory look at results suggests Deepak’s snatch – is the better of his two lifts. ”I enjoy the technique in snatch. You are constantly thinking of the correct position for your feet and hips. When you drive the bar upwards, you think of how it cant be too far in front or back. When it all comes together and you know the bar is under control, it feels really good,” says Deepak.
Obsessed with technique
His fascination with technique is why Deepak doesn’t find the entirety of the clean and jerk movement troublesome. “The jerk isn’t a problem because it is a technique-based movement,” says Deepak, who performs the rare squat-jerk version of the technique — a style made popular by the legendary Greek Pyrros Dimas. “But I struggle when I clean the bar,” admits Deepak. He laughs as he mimics his labours with the first part of the movement when the bar is extended as high as possible while squatting to receive it in a racked position along the neck.
Deepak could ‘fight’ the weight, particularly like his one-year-older colleague and close friend Jimjang Deru, who competes in the 56-kg category. But he chooses not to. “I don’t want to do that at this stage of my career. That way I avoid injuries,” he says.
As such, Deepak is often in front after the snatch lifts, only for his rivals to catch up with the clean and jerk. At the Asian Youth Championships in Doha, in January last year, Deepak won gold in snatch but dropped to silver on total weight. At the senior nationals, his lift of 141kg was only fourth best in the clean and jerk results.
Yet, coaches were still impressed enough to begin blooding Deepak at the highest stage of all – the 2015 World Championships in Houston. It was a bittersweet experience. “I was the youngest weightlifter in Houston. I was overawed because the biggest names of weightlifting like Kim un Guk and Chen Lijung were there. But all of them were looking at me to see what I could do,” says Deepak. He eventually lifted a sub-par 116 kg in snatch and 140 in clean and jerk, four kilos less than the weights he had lifted in the selection trials for the tournament in Patiala. “I couldn’t control my nerves. But next time will be different,” he avers.
Deepak says he is getting used to training and performing amidst far older compatriots. “Ultimately you have to perform because no one cares how old you are,” he says. He admits there are differences between the two generations of lifters. “For many seniors, weightlifting is a job. For Deru and me, it’s fun. But if there’s one thing we need to do less of, it’s to stop constantly looking at our phone to check Facebook updates after training,” he laughs.
Deepak says he gets along with his seniors who help him out. K Ravi Kumar, gold medallist in the 69 kg category at the 2010 CWG, taught him about avoiding contamination in food supplements. “He told me how to carry my own food to competitions and never accept anything from anyone even if he is a roommate or friend,” says Deepak. Equally valued, if not more, was a mobile phone gifted by Commonwealth Games silver medalist Vikas Thakur for breaking the national record. Deepak’s old phone, unsurprisingly, had been broken when he squeezed it a little too hard.
While he’s happy with his new phone’s capabilities, Deepak doesn’t think much of his record. “The record is nothing. If I get satisfied just winning at the national level, I might as well quit. I want to compete at the Asian and World level,” he asserts.
But to be competitive at the Asian Games –where no Indian male weightlifter has medalled since 1951, Deepak has to make changes. Coach Sharma Deepak must move up a weight category. “There’s little doubt he would have won the 62kg gold at the next CWG. (The best snatch at the 2014 Games was 125 kg). But if he wants to get really competitive he needs to improve his clean and jerk. The clean is causing problem because he doesn’t have enough weight in his back and legs. He is 5’9″, which is tall for his weight category. So he can put in a lot more muscle. He can achieve his potential in the 69kg category,” reckons Sharma.
The 69kg division is one of Indian men weightlifting’s most storied, with Ravi Kumar’s lifts of 147 kg (snatch), 175 kg (clean and jerk) and a 321 kg (total) at the 2010 Commonwealth Games a standing record. Deepak knows it’s a big challenge. “I have a long way to go. His snatch record is better than my best clean and jerk. Ít will take a couple of years, but I know I can get there.”
For that Deepak is willing to make the biggest sacrifice of all – give up his precious mobile phone. “I’m going to leave this phone behind at my village and take a simple one, just to make calls with. It’s going to be hard but I can’t have any distractions. In two years, I want to be someone who can compete at the World Championships in 2017 and, perhaps, even the 2020 Olympics. My phone was fun for me right now but now I need to grow up,” he says.