Updated: December 10, 2021 6:55:18 am
Every morning pole vaulter Devraj wakes up to the sight of a huge stench-emanating drain flowing right outside his rented accommodation. But from that very same room, through the hazy Delhi skies, he also has a view of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium – considered one of the best track and field facilities in the country. The flowing drain and the iconic stadium, the 23-year-old says, is a constant reminder of the struggles he has to face every day to reach closer to his dream of becoming an elite vaulter.
After training at various academies across the country, Devraj landed in Delhi in 2019 hoping to gain access to better training facilities. But the pandemic and later the missing pole vault pits at JLN turned out to be a huge blow.
With no financial or moral support from home, Devraj has always had to take up odd jobs to even ensure he gets his meals. He is currently employed as a security guard at one of the bungalows in Delhi’s posh Defence Colony. “I told them that I will do only night shifts because I did not want my training to get disrupted,” says the wiry athlete.
A major portion of his meagre earnings is spent on rent for the tiny single room accommodation that he shares with a para jumper who also trains at JLN.
“The room is so tiny that I can’t even keep my poles inside. I have to tie them up on the terrace. And what do I tell you about the stench?… I sometimes weep myself to sleep thinking about my situation only to wake up to reality again,” says Devraj.
But even sleep is a luxury that Devraj can only seldom afford.
He’s kept awake all night by tenants at the building where he works as a guard. During winters he has to bear the biting cold in the parking lot which is also his resting area. If sleep deprivation and harsh weather weren’t enough, Devraj’s life at work is made tougher by unwanted visitors. “A lot of insects come in attracted by the light. It also gets so lonely here all by myself. I have no choice but to do this to keep my dreams afloat,” he says with a smile.
Devraj’s first tryst with pole vault happened by chance. The then 15-year-old was surfing through channels on his black & white television back home in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, as he chanced upon a re-run of an event where the legendary Sergey Bubka was competing. Bubka is an all-time great with one Olympic gold and six World Championship (outdoor) medals. The teenager’s eyes were glued to the telly for the next hour or so as he saw Bubka display his magic.
“It was so fascinating. I couldn’t believe that someone could just use a pole and leap so high into the air. The very next day I went to my school physical trainer and asked him to teach me danda khud (stick jump). That’s what I initially called it,” says Devraj.
Devraj’s teacher had little clue about pole vault and instead enrolled him into Wushu. “Usme bahut maar khana padta hai .(In Wushu, you have to take a lot of blows). I did not like it at all.”
Devraj decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. He looked for a sturdy bamboo stick and built a landing pit with discarded mattresses and began training in the village fields. “I developed my own technique and somehow managed to make it to the district meet with a few years of training and bagged a silver. That was my first-ever medal. No one had fibre poles at that meet. It was more like a village games competition,” he says.
But Devraj’s aspirations were bigger, and for that, he knew he would have to move to the city. The teenager took a loan from his parents and moved out to Jaipur after finishing school. Devraj’s farmer family have never been supportive of his sporting endeavours. “They feel I am wasting time and money,” he says.
Devraj had briefly followed his parents’ direction and took up a job in a cloth factory in the town. “I worked one week at the factory as a helper. The sound of the machines was deafening and my ears would ring even after I went home. That one week made me realise that it wasn’t a job but a death sentence to my dreams. So I borrowed the money and left home for good,” recalls Devraj while holding back his tears.
When Devraj reached Delhi he felt life would finally change for good but his training got disrupted due to the covid induced lockdowns which forced the stadiums to shut their doors. When training resumed at JLN the vaulter was hit by another roadblock, missing pole vault apparatus. It’s been eight months since there has been no pole vault apparatus at Sports Authority of India’s JLN stadium that has forced several budding vaulters to quit the sport.
But for Devraj quitting wasn’t an option. The next nearest stadium with a vault apparatus was across the border in Faridabad about 50 kilometres from his house.
“It takes one and half hours, one way, to reach the sports complex in Faridabad. Ideally, I should be training six days a week but since I can’t afford the metro fair so I go three times a week,” he says. A rough calculation shows Devraj would have to spend 30 per cent of his paltry salary on travel alone if he goes to Faridabad regularly.
“With my current salary, I can’t even afford shoes. All the shoes that I have are discarded footwear from other athletes. (Devraj points to the torn patch on his sole). I have just one proper meal a day and going to train so far means cutting down even on that,” says the dejected youngster.
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