Still, only 21, India's youngest ever CWG medallist Deepak Lather primed to sparkle on the world stage
With a dedicated support team at his disposal, 2018 CWG bronze medallist Deepak Lather is looking forward to accomplishing the targets he has set for himself
As the National Weightlifting Championships in Patiala, last month drew near, Deepak Lather, bronze medallist from the 2018 Commonwealth Games, felt pain in his right hip. Training at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune, Lather became quite concerned as the competition was only a couple of weeks away and he was in no position to reduce the intensity of his routines.
"Sir, yeh pain chala jayega nah? (Sir, this will pain will go, right?)?" he asked his physiotherapist Gitanshu Sharma, deeply worried that his chance to shine on the national stage would be scuppered because of injury.
Lather needn't have been worried. In alliance with his colleagues at the Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine department at the Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai, Sharma formulated a plan.
While Senior Physiotherapists Jimit Kapadia and Leandi van Zyl, head of Sport Science and Strength and Conditioning weighed in on the contours of the rehab program, Sharma also sought inputs from sports psychologist Maithili Bhuptani and nutritionist Mihira Khopkar, all the while assuring Lather he would be ready in time.
An MRI scan revealed Lather had a tear and the rehab plan was designed to ensure the condition was managed carefully to ensure he could be at his best at the Nationals. His training focused on the core and glutes with the warm-up phase zeroing in on providing stability during the dip movement of his clean and jerk routine.
For his shoulders and core, strength sessions included Tempo Bar training and Overhead Barbell walking, while routines were put in place specifically to build power in his legs to improve the dip movements used by Lather when executing lifts.
Pain-free and bubbling with confidence, as a result, Lather produced a sparkling performance in Patiala.
Locked in a titanic battle with Achinta Sheuli, another lifter supported by Reliance Foundation who won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships earlier in the year, in the 73kg category, Lather lifted his personal best marks of 145kg in the snatch, erasing the previous national mark of 141kg set by Sheuli and 166kg in the clean & jerk, for a total of 311kg.
Sheuli pipped him to the Gold medal by merely 1kg in the most intensely contested category of the competition, with the best lift of 169kg in the clean & jerk, to register a total of 312kgs.
For Lather, who just a couple of weeks ago was harbouring doubts about whether he would be able to compete at all, the outcome was extremely satisfying although he missed out on the gold medal. His performance had ensured his spot in the group of core athletes for the Commonwealth Games next year in Birmingham.
"Deepak is a very quick learner, self-motivated & goal-oriented," says Iqbal Singh Bhatti, Chief Weightlifting Coach at ASI, Pune. "His strengths are that he is very disciplined, focussed and eager to learn new things and techniques."
As a ten-year-old, Deepak was scouted by the Boys Sports Company (BSC) to train for Diving in Pune from his hometown of Jind in Haryana. However, the alliance was short-lived as Deepak hit his head on the springboard during one of his early training sessions.
As luck would have it, Deepak was assessed for another sport, Weightlifting, and almost immediately started to achieve impressive results.
At the Youth Nationals in 2012, he finished second in the 50kg category and a year later, Deepak had his first taste of international competition when he participated at the Youth World Championships, where he finished 12th.
Three years later, his standout ability started to deliver on the international stage with a Gold at the 2015 Commonwealth Championships followed by another at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the 62kg category.
At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, 18-year old Deepak made the sporting community sit up and take notice, becoming the youngest Indian weightlifter to win a Commonwealth Games medal, clinching the Bronze in the 69kg category with a total lift of 295kgs.
While his early trajectory had been eye-catching, for Deepak to continue to build on his potential, he required professional intervention on multiple fronts. In 2019, he was included along with four other talented weightlifters, in the newly launched Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) elite Athlete scholarship scheme.
Jimit Kapadia, who conducted the initial screenings on Deepak once he was brought on board, was startled at what he discovered. Deepak was struggling with hamstring and bony issues and required rigorous rehab and sport-specific strength and conditioning.
At ASI, where Deepak trained, a dedicated strength and conditioning expert, Rahul Vashisth, was assigned to him for a three-month period starting November 2019. His fitness levels improved and gradually Deepak started to tick off Personal Best marks.
"Our overall strategy as physios is to make sure the athlete stays free from pain," says Gitanshu Sharma. "In case of injury, our goal remains to get them back to their sport as soon as possible. The biggest challenge in weightlifting is recovery, as the loads are always high, for which constant communication with the coach is essential."
"It is a holistic approach, which is what we followed in Deepak's case," he adds. "The recovery training should not be monotonous. For example, we used to listen to Harayanwi songs in recovery sessions just to make sure Deepak wouldn't get bored and during the ice bath we would talk about other international weightlifters. All these innovations need to be planned."
Bhatti, who started working with Deepak after his Commonwealth Games Bronze, had another concern - Deepak's mental fragility. Maithili Bhuptani, who first assessed Deepak in 2020, received a call from a worried Bhatti a few weeks before the Nationals, with the coach telling her, "Deepak does not know how to bounce back from a single adversity or failure, he gives up." The very next day Deepak too was on the phone with Bhuptani, admitting he lacked the mental strength required to compete against the top lifters in the country.
Over the next few weeks, Bhuptani, the Lead Sport & Exercise Psychologist at the Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, spent hours working with Deepak. Her strategy was to approach the problem from multiple angles.
Bhuptani emphasized a process she describes as "Cognitive Restructuring", to view one bad lift as an opportunity to try harder for the next one. Deepak was asked to maintain a diary to note down what he learned from the training sessions and what he did well in those sessions.
She also incorporated the practice of positive self-talk statements before each lift, which Deepak found extremely useful, besides various breathing techniques to gain more control, confidence and calmness during his lifts. Armed with a regimen he implicitly trusted, Deepak practised the routine over and over and by the time the Nationals arrived, felt in complete control over his mind.
"He executed our plan perfectly following each and every step diligently during the competition," says Bhuptani. "It was a 'mental' win for him. His major strength, that I have witnessed over these two years, is that he is highly motivated and extremely dedicated. Weightlifting is everything to him."
"I have noticed considerable changes in my attitude when I am about to lift," says Lather. "Earlier, I would have doubts about whether I would be able to make the lift or not. However, lately, I have gained significant confidence and attempt the lifts with positive thoughts while going all out."
"As the weights increase, lifters generally get overwhelmed and tend to go for an attempt without applying the proper technique," he adds. "I have realized that it is important to stay focused and apply the technique correctly even when the heaviest weights are being attempted. The fact that I have been able to train through the lockdown and have solid support from my coaches and RFYS has led to this change in my state of mind."
With a dedicated support team at his disposal, Deepak Lather, still only 21 years old, is now looking forward to accomplishing the targets he has set for himself. In July, RFYS enabled him to take part in a month-long high-altitude camp at Shillaru in Himachal Pradesh, with a dedicated physio at his disposal, to prepare for upcoming competitions.
The Army man, at the peak of his powers, has several high-profile competitions in his sights now, starting with the Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2022, the World Championships in 2023 and the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. He can't wait to get going.