I remember the moments leading up to my turns in the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. My coach Vijay Sharma was the pillar during those moments.
“You may not be physically fit, make sure you use your mental toughness to win the Gold you deserve,” he told me.
And that’s precisely what I did.
They say the beginning is a very good place to start. But maybe in my case, I am allowed to disagree with that sentiment and begin, instead, with the most important day of my life recently.
The day that I managed to silence the haters and doubters, and even prove myself wrong- the day I won the Gold medal at Gold Coast.
I had been waiting for that moment for four years. But the build-up to it was anything but pleasant. You see, in weightlifting, to stay fit requires as much as effort as to train. The human body is a miracle, and as lifters, our job is to push the very limits that define us. Injuries are a regular part of life. What will set you apart as a sportsperson is how you recover from it. It’s never going to be easy.
But, in my case, it was indeed worth it.
In January 2018, the Senior Nationals brought me the Silver. I had just been recovering from a back injury acquired before the Olympics, but this was different. The diagnosis showed a muscle tear in both thighs. It was severe and probably, tested my patience like few things have done before.
At that point, it was GoSports who supported me with a physiotherapist named Varun Shetty. These were months of intense rehab, during which I wasn’t able to train correctly.
The stage had reached such that if I prepared properly for a day, I needed to follow that up with two days of rest just to recover.
This was the state that Varun took over in. We were required to go to Melbourne ahead of the Commonwealth Games for an exposure trip. Varun accompanied me along with a mental trainer. That helped a lot.
Rehab and treatment can be very frustrating. Especially when you always remind yourself that you have a significant tournament barely four months away.
You race against time to make sure you do not disappoint the enormous weight of expectations on you.
And when you finally climb that mountain to emerge victoriously, all your troubles seem very tiny in comparison.
It wouldn’t do to be too bogged down by negativity right before an important day or moment. Back then in Gold Coast, circumstances were far from ideal. My injury had relapsed again. I was a medal-winning prospect who was not at my peak fitness, but my contingent had no physiotherapist who was allowed inside the Athletes’ Village.
We went around the area to places where the other Indian squads were training, and finally, the physio who was attending to the badminton players helped me out.
The night before my event, I had to be held together with tapes. A few hours before my event, my body had tapes around my ankle, my thighs, my knees- you name it. It was a miracle that I managed to put it all behind me. I do not think I would have been able to do that if it wasn’t for the mental support I got.
Somehow, everyone’s confidence in me managed to calm me down. Towards the end, when I was inching slowly towards the Gold medal, it was me directing my coach regarding the loads I would take.
My body may have theoretically given up on me, but my mind knew how much I needed this, how much I was waiting for this. In the end, it just made the whole experience that much more worthwhile. Funny thing, however, I never told my family the kind of pain I was in during the months leading up to the Commonwealth Games. It did not seem fair to worry them regarding something that was out of their hands- not after the lengths they had gone to ensure that I could focus on my sport without distractions.
My roots have always been intertwined with the discipline of weightlifting. Sathuvachari, my birthplace, is notoriously overcrowded with National Champion lifters. Every road you take, you’ll find little hubs, little gyms- all full of people training to be lifters. You will not find too many international medallists, however.
You see, for most people, the sport is more of a necessity than a passion. Winning the National Championships gets you a job which in turn assures you financial stability. When you spend your life on a low to a middle-class income, you acquire this utilitarian perspective.
I would have probably gone that way too had it not been for my parents. They made their sacrifices to ensure that my passion does not die out. How does one repay that kind of selflessness?
I would say I finally gave them a chance to be proud of me back in 2013. In many ways, that was the turning point in my life. When the senior National title finally gave me a job as a senior clerk at the Railways, the pressures of meeting deadlines and commuting to faraway locations meant that I had given up training for more than two years. When I finally decided to make a comeback, there was a different set of problems. My reporting manager refused to allocate me time off from work.
I cannot even blame him. In all his years of service, he had probably come across many people who were not able to stick with the discipline that they came to love. In India, the system is such that you will find these almost champions everywhere you go.
My senior probably thought I belonged in that category. My birthplace is famous for such people after all. It took me all the determination I could muster to convince him otherwise. He must have seen a spark in me because he finally relented.
This was in 2013. I brought home the Gold medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Little things set the way to greatness. After the Gold, I got the Arjuna. I got cash incentives from various avenues. My parents, who had so far taken loans off relatives to support my training, were able to pay back their dues at last. The patience and the perseverance had finally paid off. The road ahead was long and hard, but at least the journey had begun.
I think I have been quite lucky to have made it this far. I worked hard, but I always had the support I needed at any given point be it from my family, the Federation or the Railways.
The lack of education surrounding sports in India makes it quite difficult for most people to achieve whatever little I have even if they have the passion necessary for it. For instance, look at what happened with the physiotherapist back in Gold Coast. Anyone with a proper understanding of sports would know what an integral role a coach and a physiotherapist plays in shaping up an athlete.
What about mental trainers? Do we not underplay the role a psychologist plays in the life of a sportsperson?
The narrative here is such that we tend to focus only on the athlete often forgetting that there is a lot of work which happens behind the scenes. The glory catches the limelight. The hard work is overlooked.
And this lack of education is seen in other sectors too. Doping and steroids are among them. I know its slightly cathartic nowadays to cite ignorance when you test positive for a banned substance, but sometimes, that is the case. Maybe not with seasoned athletes but you have to remember the roots most of us come from.
A simple question here. If there is so much effort put behind developing sports at the Indian grassroots, shouldn’t similar efforts be put into educating the athletes at these grassroots about doping offences? Why wait till they compete at the elite level? How can reaching out at the early stages hurt anyone? Ideally, outreach programs with seminars should be the norm everywhere there is an effort to build a sporting culture. Without these supporting sciences, you’re only doing half the job, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, my sport has seen an obscenely high number of cases. It’s sad when you view it objectively and, over time, I have learnt to be cautious. It would be heartbreaking for me, for anyone in my place, to see their life’s work destroyed because of a stupid mistake.
I am never satisfied with my performance. I always think about what next to achieve. As a National Champion, I dreamt about representing India. After the Commonwealth Games now, I relish the thought of an Asian Games medal. For me, each benchmark I set is about achieving a new level of excellence. I actively dislike stagnation. I carefully build up my targets and the least I can do is to see that my spirit, reputation and effort is not broken by something as unethical as doping.
On that note, do you know what my ultimate target is though? To go where no lifter has ever gone before. A Padma Shri or a Khel Ratna. It’s a long-standing dream of mine. Everything I have done in life has been to achieve that. Maybe that day isn’t far off. Who can tell?
For the moment, things are on track. And I hope that condition of homeostasis remains for the near future. Even if circumstances take a turn for the worse, I now know that I have the strength needed to tackle whatever is thrown my way.
All my days as a sportsperson have taught me never to underestimate myself.