“What do I tell you?” says Devendra Jhajharia. “Javelin mera junoon hai (Javelin is an obsession for me).”
It’s easy to understand why the javelin holds a special place in Jhajharia’s heart. Not just because it brought him two Paralympic gold medals, 12 years apart, each with a world record. But because it has been the one thing he could always rely on and take charge of, when the world around him was spinning out of control—as it had happened when Jhajharia had first started playing the sport at the age of 12.
When he was eight years old in his village Churu, in Rajasthan, he touched a live cable and was electrocuted. His left arm had to be amputated due to the accident. Villagers, including kids his age, taunted him for attempting to take up sports, his parents were told their son’s life was as good as over, and he was told ‘ye (javelin) tere kaam kin ahi hai’. (It’s of no use to you.) But Jhajharia picked up the javelin nonetheless. “It was something I could do with one arm,” he says. He began competing in district competitions with able-bodied athletes, and then started beating them.
Things spun out of control again in 2020, when the world was shut down due to the covid-19 outbreak. In October that year, Jhajharia lost his father to cancer. The man who had stood with him like a rock in the face of his early struggles; the man who had been his pillar of strength and his biggest supporter. “That time was very challenging,” recalls Jhajharia. “I was in Gandhinagar when the doctor informed my father that he had cancer. The doctor told him he had 10-15 days to live. My father sent me back to training. He told me I should focus on my sport, and that his wish was that I’d win one more medal.”
At the age of 23, when Jhajharia left for his maiden Paralympics, the 2004 Games in Athens, his father was the only one who’d seen him off at the airport. At Athens, Jhajharia won the gold medal in men’s F46 category with a world record throw of 62.15 metres. The Indian javelin star had to wait 12 years for a shot at Paralympics again, as the F46 event was excluded from the Games in 2008 and 2012. He stepped up again in Rio, winning the gold with another world record throw of 63.97 meters.
In 2020, Jhajharia was training for his third Paralympics appearance when the pandemic struck. “Training during covid was very tough,” he says. “You couldn’t get out of the house, but had to remain fit. It’s like you have to clear the UPSC exam but are not allowed to read the textbooks!
“My coach told me make sure you don’t put on weight, because that can cause problems. Then you will get slower, performance will go down. I was at home, so started working out in the house itself, with whatever I had available, like medicine ball. I used to keep doing core exercises. I used to do weight training with a gas cylinder, or would remove the tyres from the car and use that as weight.” His wife, a former kabaddi player, doubled up as his fitness trainer.
Jhajharia returned to his training base, the Sports Authority of India centre in Gandhinagar, as soon as the lockdown was lifted but was struck by tragedy within a few weeks.
“In October, I got the dreaded message that my father was very critical. Before I could reach home he passed away,” he says. “The tradition is that we have to stay at home for 12 days. Once I had done that, my mother told me to return to training. I wasn’t in the mood. The first week I couldn’t work at all. I was not fit physically or mentally. My coach and I would just go to the ground, he would talk to me, maybe jog around the ground.”
But at the age of 40, despite having already won two gold medals in Paralympics and with very little left to prove, Jhajharia kept going back to his sport.
“I don’t think I can live without it,” he says. “You can call it my weakness or my helplessness. I didn’t once think about leaving the sport. As long as my arm and feet work, I will keep doing it.” This June, Jhajharia threw down the gauntlet for the rest of the field, by recording a throw of 65.71m during the national selection trials to seal his place for the Tokyo Paralympics, which began on 24 August. Though it was a world record distance, he wasn’t ratified since it didn’t happen in an official tournament.
However, it has given Jhajharia the confidence that he can continue his streak of winning gold with a world record throw at the Paralympics. The Indian flagbearer during the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Jhajharia once again goes into Tokyo as one of the country’s biggest medal hopes. “I am lucky that I am getting to play my third Paralympics and have won gold medals already,” says Jhajharia, who is targeting 67m and beyond in Tokyo.
“I feel happy that people are expecting a lot from me, but I am also aware that I need to deliver on those expectations. If you look at my performance history, I have given my best at the Paralympics so I don’t think pressure really affects me.”
The reason for that might be because he’s obsessed about the sport but not as much about a gold medal. “I will definitely give my best in Tokyo,” he says. “But I don’t think returning with anything less than gold is a step down. Winning and losing are two sides of a coin. When you look at it, for a lot of athletes just qualifying, or getting to compete at the Games is a big deal.”
All para athletes come with their own stories of struggle and strife. How often does the double Olympic champion and Padma Shri awardee look back on his own?
“I do think of it sometimes,” he says. “I feel very sad. “The kind of things that people used to say, they should have given a little thought to what they were saying to a young kid.They would tell me, ‘tere kaam ki nahi hai ye. But now that I think about it, mere hi kaam ki thi wo! (It was meant for me!)” As far as Indian para athletes go, he’s the gold standard.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.