A PARALYMPICS debutant who had competed with able-bodied rivals including Neeraj Chopra earlier this year; an inspiration for a generation of para athletes; and, an athlete on a mission to wipe out heart-breaking memories — three javelin throwers with unique storylines won a gold, silver and bronze for India in different categories Monday in Tokyo.
This haul from track and field came on the day India got a historic shooting gold, with Avani Lekhara winning the 10m air rifle event, and its Para Games medal count reached a best-ever seven. Having won four medals last time in Rio, India is now 26th on the medal ladder.
The day’s showstopper was Sumit Antil, 23, who broke the world record thrice before winning gold in the F-64 category (based on level of disability) with a throw of 68.55m — about two metres more than his effort at the March 2021 Indian GP, which also had Tokyo Olympics gold-medallist Chopra.
Devendra Jhajharia, 40, won his third Paralympic medal with a silver-medal winning throw of 64.35m in the F-46 category. And his fellow Rajasthan athlete Sundar Singh Gurjar claimed the bronze in the same category with a throw of 64.01m.
Later, Antil’s mother Nirmala recalled those tough days of struggle. “I still remember the day Sumit lost his left leg after his bike was hit by a tractor near Sonepat (Haryana) as he was returning from tuition classes. When the doctors decided to amputate his leg, I asked myself what my son’s future would be like. But the way Sumit made his recovery and started a new life in sport was something I could not imagine. To see him win gold has made us forget that fateful day finally,” Nirmala told The Indian Express.
Antil’s father Ram Kumar, who had served in the IAF, died in 2004 due to cancer. Sumit, the youngest of four siblings, initially trained as a wrestler at his village Khewra before joining the SAI Centre at Bahalgarh. It was on January 5, 2015, that he met with the accident and spent more than 53 days at the Base Hospital at Delhi Cantt.
🔥 Sumit Antil sets a WR with his first 66.95m throw!
🔥 Breaks his OWN WR with his second 68.08m attempt!
🔥 Breaks it yet AGAIN in his 5th attempt with 68.55m
🔥 Wins the Men’s Javelin F64 #Gold for #IND! #Tokyo2020 #Paralympics #ParaAthletics pic.twitter.com/q3Nl2m1dLM
— #Tokyo2020 for India (@Tokyo2020hi) August 30, 2021
“I remember being conscious and making the call to the ambulance on my own. Each day…in hospital was like a long wait but then I would see videos of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius. I made sure that I joined sports after I came home and got the prosthetic leg from Pune,” Antil had said on Sunday before his event.
It was Antil’s meeting with para athlete Ram Kumar, which led him to 2018 Asian Para Games silver medallist Virender Dhankar in Sonepat before training under Dronacharya awardee Naval Singh. Initially, Singh made Sumit try the discus throw, but was impressed by his action and started training him in javelin, even renting a room for him near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi.
“He had a prosthetic leg and I initially made him practice throws in the long jump pit from a distance of 25-30 m. I would tell him to walk and not run as running led to bleeding with the prosthetic leg rubbing against the knee. Suffering pain, he would try the throw while lying down in a hammer throw net,” said Naval Singh.
In the last three years, Antil has broken the world record several times. At the Paris Grand Prix in 2019 he set a new mark of 61.32m and later bettered it with a throw of 62.88m at the World Para Championships in Dubai. “In 2017, we took him to the Finland trip and it helped his technique too… now Antil does not fall due to the prosthetic blade,” the coach said.
Jhajharia, meanwhile, dedicated his silver medal to his father who succumbed to cancer last year. “My father had wanted to see me win another medal but sadly I lost him last year due to cancer. I did my best today and I am happy having won my third medal,” he said.
For Gurjar, who hails from a village on the Jaipur-Bharatpur NH-11 highway, it was redemption after heart-break in Rio in 2016 when he missed the final due to a 52-second delay in reporting at the venue.
Gurjar was once a regular on the able-bodied circuit, winning bronze in the 2013 national youth Athletics championship where Neeraj Chopra had won gold. However, Gurjar’s life changed on a holiday to a nearby village in 2015, when he lost his left hand after a tin fell on him from a roof.
“Those were not 52 seconds (in Rio), those were like 52 years for Sundar. That night, he contemplated suicide and I was with him every night in the following months. I would tell him that he could do better and when he resumed training, he would tell me that in Tokyo, he would win the medal and end the agony of those 52 seconds. To see him do that today feels special for both him and me,” Gurjar’s coach Mahaveer Singh Saini said.