The first step is picking up the arrow between her toes and deftly weaving it into the compound bow. Sheetal Devi then lifts the bow with her right foot, hooks the arrow into a contraption around her shoulder, stretches back, straightens the right leg, steadies the bow using her leg and core strength, takes aim and snaps back as she releases the arrow. More often than not, she hits the mark. The only armless archer in the field at the deferred 2022 Asian Para Games in Hangzhou, Devi is one of a kind. She uses her legs, feet and shoulders to handle the bow and arrow, making the improbable look effortless.
And she took up archery just over a year ago. Devi, who hails from Loidhar—a village, in Kishtwar district of Jammu, was born with phocomelia—a condition in which limbs are underdeveloped. In July this year, she won a silver medal in Women’s Individual Compound—Open category to become the first armless woman to win a medal at the World Para Archery Championships. Building on that success, the 16-year-old claimed three medals in Hangzhou: women’s individual gold, mixed team gold with Rakesh Kumar and women’s team silver with Sarita.
Ability over disability. That’s what Indian athletes proved yet again as they bagged a record haul at the Asian Para Games 2022. Just like their able-bodied peers a month ago, Indian para-athletes went past a century of medals at the continental event for the very first time. They claimed a total of 111 medals—29 gold, 31 silver and 51 bronze—to smash the previous record of 72 medals at the 2018 Asian Games. India finished fifth in the rankings, the first time in the top five.
“Everyone expected India to cross 100 medals, and we have done that today,” Indian para-archer Harvinder Singh, who won a bronze in Men's Doubles Recurve-Open with Sahil, tells Lounge. The 32-year-old, who suffers from lower limb disability, is the first archer to win a medal for India at the Olympics or Paralympics when he won a bronze at the Tokyo Games.
“At the 2018 Asian Games, I was the only one to win a medal in para-archery. This time we have won a total of seven medals. The environment around para sports has changed a lot. Earlier, people would define us by our disability. But once you win a medal, they look at you as an achiever first. They recognise the level of effort, and excellence in one’s field,” added the archer, who is also pursuing a doctorate in economics.
After languishing in obscurity for decades, para sports turned a corner in India in 2016. At the Rio Paralympics, India won four medals, including two gold, which was at the time the country’s best show at the mega-event. It was also more than what India had been able to muster at the Rio Olympics, and went a long way in raising awareness and gaining recognition for para-athletes. Since then, para sports, fuelled by support from government and private agencies, has been on an upward curve.
At the Asian Para Games alone, the number of participants has jumped from 190 in 2018 to 303 in Hangzhou this year. Apart from winning the medal haul, Indian athletes also created three world records at the 2022 Asian Para Games, which took place from 22-28 October.
Paralympics champion Sumit Antil rewrote the men's javelin throw-F64 world record with a 73.29m throw. Also in men’s javelin, Sundar Singh Gurjar raised the bar in the F-46 category by hurling the spear to 68.60m. The Men’s Doubles Compound-Open archery team of Rakesh Kumar and Suraj Singh shot a world record total of 158 during the quarter-finals against the Philippines and ended up with a silver.
In four events—Men's Club Throw F51, Men's Javelin Throw F46, Men's Discus Throw F54/55/56 and Men's Chess Individual Rapid VI-B1—India completed a podium sweep. Like at the Asian Games, India won a chunk of its medals in track and field events. Athletics contributed 55 medals, including 18 gold, to their tally.
While established names like Antil and high-jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu (a medallist in Rio), continued to shine, it also saw emergence of bright new talents like Deepthi Jeevanji, who created an Asian and Games record. The 20-year-old won gold in the Women's 400m-T20 (a classification for athletes with intellectual disability) with a time of 56.69 seconds, which was two seconds faster than her closest rival.
India also continued their dominance in para-badminton. Since the sport was introduced in the Paralympics roster for Tokyo 2020, it has shot up in popularity in the country. At tour events, the shuttlers regularly bag multiple events. They extended their ascendancy to the Asian Games as well, winning 21 medals, including four golds.
“Winning a medal at the Asian Games was important for badminton players, because it helps up win qualifying points for the Paris Olympics,” Pramod Bhagat, who defended his title in men’s singles SL3 category, tells Lounge. This is the third major title in three years for the 35-year-old Bhagat, who won gold at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021, then had another successful outing in the Japanese capital as he clinched gold at the 2022 World Championships. In fact, the para-badminton star has already won five gold and a total of eight medals at World Championships.
“Every medal is important,” he says. “Even though the best players on the planet compete at the World Championships, success at multi-sport events, like the Asian Games go a long way in gaining support and recognition for us, be it from the government or the fans. The way Indian society views people with disabilities is different now, and I would like to believe that the achievements of para athletes has helped bring about that change.”
The message of para sports is travelling far and wide in the country. On the one end of spectrum, there are ambassadors like Manasi Joshi, who worked as a software engineer in Mumbai before becoming a world champion in para badminton and finished with two medals (Women's Doubles SL3-SU5 with Thulasimathi Murugesan, women’s singles SL3 bronze) in Hangzhou.
On the other hand stands a breakthrough talent like Devi, the latest in the line of small-town India’s big-time dreamers. Having spent most of her adolescent life in the mountains, Devi, who initially wanted to be a teacher, underwent a physical assessment, through Being You, a storytelling platform and start up in Bengaluru. That’s where they realised that while she had no arms, her legs and core were unusually strong and referred her to para-archery coach Kuldeep Vedwan. It was Vedwan who fashioned the device that helps her pull the bow string with her shoulder and hold it steady with her chin.
During an interview with Scroll.in, in September, Devi was quoted as saying, “I kept wondering how can I do this… I don’t have arms. Then once I started, I fell in love with it.” Back home at the Shree Mata Vaishno Devi Academy, where she trains, Devi would shoot around 300 arrows a day, making her unique technique seem almost like second nature. The teenager from Jammu was India’s most successful athlete at the Para Asian Games in Hangzhou, and like her peers, embodied the indomitable spirit of a para-athlete.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.