When high jumper Praveen Kumar was trying to get admission to Delhi University a couple of years back, he was denied a spot in the sports trials “because he was differently-abled”. The authorities advised him and his mentor Dr Satyapal SIngh, a specialised para coach, to apply through the differently-abled quota, assuring them of an “easier” path to college admission.
But Praveen, who bagged a silver medal (T-64) with a best jump of 2.07m at the Tokyo Paralympics on Friday, and his coach felt it was grossly unfair and stood their ground.
— Amit Saroha (@AmitParalympian) September 3, 2021
“I made calls to top officials in the university and requested to at least allow Praveen to take part in the trials. They reluctantly agreed,” recalls Satyapal.
Praveen, competing against non-disabled athletes, finished second in the trials and bagged a place in the Bachelors of Arts course through the sports quota. But it wasn’t the first occasion when the 18-year-old from Jewar in Uttar Pradesh had been overlooked for being different.
When Praveen was in Class 9, he had enrolled in the high jump competition of a school-level sports meet and was outrightly denied entry. “My son came home heartbroken. I called up the sports in-charge and was told my son didn’t stand a chance since it was an open category event. I requested him to give Praveen a chance at least,” father Amarpal, who works in the UP government’s irrigation department, says.
Praveen not only competed but won a gold medal at the meet. “Bas wahin se shuruat hui hai (Thus began his journey in athletics). And the result is in front of you today,” says the proud father. Praveen had a modest upbringing in Govindgarh village of Jewar, about a two-hour journey from Central Delhi. The last half hour was taken to cover just a five-kilometre stretch from the main town to his village since the roads are narrow and in dire need of repair. The district has been in news as the site of a new airport that is going to come up and the economic benefits for the farmers who gave up their lands for the project.
But Praveen’s village is quite some distance from the proposed airport, keeping it at arm’s length from any possible economic benefit resulting from the new construction. Govindgarh’s residents, especially the youngsters, hope Praveen’s medal will push authorities to construct a stadium in the vicinity.
“Everyone’s crazy about sports here. But the nearest athletics stadium is in Delhi,” says Praveen’s friend Sumit who is preparing for Army trials.
The legends of Praveen
At Govindgarh, Praveen has been a household name long before he became a professional athlete. His mates never tire of narrating tales of his prowess in sports, especially on the volleyball court.
“No one is even half as good as him in volleyball. Khade khade humare upar se kood jata tha (He would leap over us with ease),” says Sumit before adding, “there wasn’t a sport that he wasn’t great at. Cricket, volleyball, kabbadi… He was and is the best among us.”
Mother Nirdosh Devi says Praveen had this fascination with jumping. “He would go to the terrace and jump for hours. All day long, he would try to leap and touch the roof,” she says pointing to the ceiling which looked a good 10 foot high.
Coach’s course correction
When Amarpal saw his son beat his non-disabled competitors in junior meets with ease, he realised he was a special talent. They somehow got hold of coach Satyapal, a well-known name in the athletics circuit.
“His jump was not that great but I chose to train him because of the explosiveness he had,” says Satyapal over phone from Tokyo. The biggest challenge when Satyapal took Praveen under his wings in September 2018 was to change his jump from the straddle technique to the Fosbury Flop technique, which all athletes on the international circuit employ.
“There was no choice and the time at hand was limited. It takes three years to just learn the technique,” says Satyapal. Praveen was hit with Covid as well and that was a huge setback too.
“We did the best we could and he not only learnt a new technique but was able to bag a Paralympics silver. My faith and trust in him have paid off,” says the proud coach.