After 8 series and 22 shots, Maharashtra para-shooter Swaroop Unhalkar found himself trailing by one point in the Final of Men's 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 at the inaugural Khelo India Para Games against Haryana's Deepak Saini on Wednesday. While Swaroop had a total score of 222.8 with two shots left, his opponent Deepak was ahead with 223.8 points and was on the cusp of winning the Gold medal. But giving up is not in Swaroop's nature. Born with severe polio leading to disability in both legs, Swaroop has been a fighter ever since his birth. Between the age of 2 months and 10 years, he had to undergo multiple operations because of his severe condition. "I never let my condition deter me from achieving my dreams," Swaroop says at the Karni Singh Shooting Range during a training session of the Khelo India Para Games 2023.
Growing up in the city of Kolhapur in Maharashtra, Swaroop became passionate about sports after he saw his uncle playing football. "I was always interested in sports while growing up. I would often visit the stadium to see my uncle compete. Looking at him, I also developed a desire to play but was unable to do so due to my physical condition. At the time, I was not aware about para-sports."
A chance meeting with Mr. Anil Powar in 2008, who was the head of the District Paralympic Association at the time led Swaroop on a new path.
"I would go to attend my classes in Polytechnic in a Government institution in Kolhapur and over there I introduced myself to Mr. Anil. He became a close friend and gave me knowledge about para-sports and thus my journey began. I finally had a chance to fulfill my dream of playing sports," he recalls.
The next step for Swaroop was to determine the sport he wanted to pursue. He tried his hands across almost everything - Shotput, Discus Throw, Javelin Throw, Athletics, Powerlifting, and Archery, before finally deciding on Shooting as his career option.
"While shooting since 2008 from the age of 21, I started competing across tournaments in 2012 after I was inspired by Abhinav Bindra Sir and Gagan Narang Sir, who both won medals at the Olympics," he says. But another factor that attracted him towards shooting was the fact that the sport would allow him to see instantaneous results.
"I could see my score on the screen as soon as I took a shot. The fact I was seeing results simultaneously allowed me to recognise my skills," he says.
But getting a chance to compete in a sport was just the start of Swaroop's journey. He had to figure out means to finance the sport. The equipment needed itself was too expensive for his family to provide, with his parents running a small shop selling pooja items. The early passing away of his father, made things more difficult.
"Because we were a family of limited means, I decided to hide my participation in shooting from my parents and family for a long time. After I played in a few competitions, they found out seeing my name being printed in newspapers. I received immense support from them once they did," he says.
Initially, Swaroop borrowed temporary shooting equipment from the Municipal Government Range in Kolhapur where he trained between 2008 and 2016. In 2014, he had the opportunity to travel to Atlanta, United States, for his first international competition. To arrange for funds, Swaroop put an advertisement in a local newspaper.
"The clipping helped me get some funds. I also received help from a few of my friends. My uncle, a cattle farmer, also sold two of his buffaloes to help me," he further recalls. To further reduce his expenses, Swaroop, who himself did not have a job at the time, would reach the competition venue only a day before the start of the tournament, and leave the next day itself.
In 2016, Swaroop became a part of the Guns for Glory Academy in Pune, where he received various facilities such as international coaching, dietician, physiotherapy, etc. - which allowed him to make massive improvements in his game. He was able to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics, but once again challenges with arranging funds led to him pondering if he should quit.
"Because of the struggles I saw, I often felt like giving up. Before the Paralympics, there were a few nights when I thought that it was becoming too hard to maintain a career in shooting and maybe I should quit," Swaroop recalls.
"But sometimes, you have a dream that does not let you sleep. It keeps you determined to complete your journey. Even if I would think at night about it, I would wake up the next morning and go for my training sessions. This dream has a hold over me - and it never lets me quit," Swaroop, who finished in the fourth position in Tokyo, says.
The same dream certainly did not let Swaroop quit on Wednesday at the Khelo India Para Games, as he scored 10.7 and 10.3 in his final two shots to finish with a total of 243.8. His opponent Deepak scored a 9.7 and a 9.4 finishing with 242.9. A thrilling comeback win etched Swaroop's name in the record books with his first Khelo India Gold medal.
"I have only one message for everyone - sometimes in life, you face situations that demotivate you. But it is important to get out of the mindset and move ahead. If you feel demotivated, always remember others also go through ups and downs. How you let this affect you is on you," he signed off.