Firstpost Masterclass: Devendra Jhajharia breaks down challenges of a para-athlete in javelin throw

Lauded with Arjuna Award (2004), Padma Shri (2012) and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2017), Jhajharia talks about his journey, what differentiates an able-bodied javelin thrower from a differently-abled athlete and what his training regime looks like in Firstpost Masterclass.

Tanuj Lakhina July 23, 2020 11:03:25 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Devendra Jhajharia breaks down challenges of a para-athlete in javelin throw

Devendra Jhajharia started his journey in javelin throw when in school. Instagram/Devendra Jhajharia

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

It had been 24 years since India last won an Olympic gold medal. The 1980 Moscow Games were to be the last of men's hockey's dominance at the biggest sporting event. Since then, Leander Paes, Karnam Malleswari, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Bhimrao Kesarkar and Joginder Singh Bedi had all won medals in Olympics or Paralympics events, but not a gold. That changed on 21 September, 2004.

Devendra Jhajharia, 23, had just sent the javelin 62.15 metres away to clinch gold in the F46 event. Not only was it India's first gold medal in 24 years, but it was also India's first Paralympic gold in 32 years and broke the world record along the way.

Jhajharia, born in Churu district of Rajasthan, lost his left arm when he was eight. While climbing a tree, he had touched a live electric wire, assuming it to be not working due to a power outage in the area, and was believed to be dead when people came to check on him. Upon medical treatment, his left arm had to be amputated.

Undeterred, Jhajharia kept his passion with sports going and with support from his mother, worked on javelin throw. Fast forward 16 years, Jhajharia has won two Olympic gold medals in two editions, two World Championships medals and one medal at Asian Para Games. He shattered the world record in Athens and then broke it again in Rio with a throw of 63.97 metres.

Lauded with Arjuna Award (2004), Padma Shri (2012) and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2017), Jhajharia talks about his journey, what differentiates an able-bodied javelin thrower from a differently-abled athlete and what his training regime looks like in this Firstpost Masterclass.

How did you start in javelin throw? Who urged you to take it up?

There's no special story behind this. I didn't even have a coach when I was young. I was in a government school and there was a culture for athletics there. I tried shot put and I found it to be heavy; discus I didn't enjoy much, but I really took to javelin throw. Many in my school played at the state level in javelin and I would watch them. Many from my district (Churu in Rajasthan) played in state tournaments.

I was 15-years-old when I started. I didn't get much support from my school. They would say 'kya fekega?' (what will he throw?), 'kuch nahi kar sakta' (he can't do anything), 'differently-abled hai, isko padhna chahiye' (he's differently-abled, he should focus on studies) and say I shouldn't bother with sports. At home, I got plenty of support from my mother. She never stopped me from taking up sports, she would urge me to play. Their support is the biggest reason I took up the sport.

How would you react to the naysayers from your school?

I would get angry. I used to think that I can throw and I enjoyed sports. It bothered me when they would say such things but I was never disappointed. I would get stubborn that I would play, I would throw.

Firstpost Masterclass Devendra Jhajharia breaks down challenges of a paraathlete in javelin throw

Devendra Jhajharia became the first Indian to win two gold medals in Paralympics. Instagram/Devendra Jhajharia

Were there any coaches early on when you started?

The physical education teacher used to be the coach when in school. The job of the teacher was to just conduct trials five days before the date and send names for district competitions. Whoever would come forward would get selected. I didn't play much in school. We would get 40 minutes interval break to play and I wouldn't get a turn while being rebuked. I was 14-15 years old, what could I do? But I compensated that with my own homemade javelin using bamboo. I used to travel five kilometres back and forth from school. I used to walk to school but run back because it would be after 4.30 PM and the light would fade. I would rush back, have milk, and then go to the ground for training. Now I realise that that five kilometres was a very good training regime.

Were there any other sports that fascinated you early on?

I used to play volleyball, and I really enjoyed playing cricket. I still watch the Ashes. I've stopped watching it as much ever since the game became favourable for the batsman and don't find much time myself. I used to be a seam bowler and kids used to ask me to not hit them by accident. My shoulder was anyway strong because I used to throw javelin so it helped in bowling also.

Ever considered taking up cricket instead of javelin throw?

There was a thought once. Once a cricket team was practising and I was there too since we shared facilities. They were really impressed with my bowling and said we're going to take you to University tournament. The players spoke to my coach (RD Singh) and expressed interest. He told them that I am doing well in athletics and that's his game. Then the coach told me that in athletics you're seen, your performance is visible. In cricket, that won't be the case. He said in an individual sport, you would be more visible than in a team sport. I understood and I also had an interest in the javelin throw.

You've said that the District Championship was crucial for your career. What changed?

Yes, it was 1995-96. I took my bamboo javelin to compete at the district level. When I became champion, the biggest gain was that no one could stop me from playing. No one would consider me to be a weak athlete. The joy I felt at that time was no lesser than what I felt after winning an Olympic medal. I find that moment to be a 100 percent change in the thought process for me.

I was in the junior category. Athletes in 10th or lower play in junior category and 11th, 12th in the senior category. I think I threw 47.50 metres to win gold. I still remember that day.

How much of a change has there been in the sport in the last 35 years? 

I remember being asked this question in 2017 when I was leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan. I had just won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna that time. I said that 30 years ago, a differently-abled kid would be asked 'why he's there in a ground', 'what do you want to do', numerous such questions. Now, they're urged to become Paralympic champions, win gold medals, become like Devendra Jhajharia. This has been the change in the last 30 years.

And how much of a change is there in terms of infrastructure and facilities?

If you go back and see my video from 2004, you would notice old, Rs  400 shoes when I was competing in the Paralympics (Athens). My competitors had shoes worth Rs 15,000 or Rs 20,000. My training involved an axe and a cycle's tube. An axe helps in making your shoulder strong and a tube to strengthen my hand. Now no one uses such equipment. There are great quality therabands, theratubes and medicine balls. The sport of then and now is very different. I feel like I've practised and competed alongside two generations of athletes.

Firstpost Masterclass Devendra Jhajharia breaks down challenges of a paraathlete in javelin throw

Devendra Jhajharia broke his own record at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. AP

Take us through the moment when you won gold in Athens.

I was only 23 at the time. During the opening ceremony, I dreamt of winning a gold medal. India hadn't won a gold medal at an Olympics or Paralympics since the men's hockey team in 1980. As it turned out, not only did I win gold, I also created a world record. The national anthem was played, the national flag appeared above the rest 200-odd countries.

The feeling you have at that moment is hard to put into words. You're elated, you're proud that you're representing India and then bringing laurels to the country. That medal was a turning point for para-sports in India. It was then that government recognised the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) and was affiliated. The government said your expenses will be borne by us. I went to Athens using my own funds and after that things changed significantly.

After the gold medal in 2004, your event was not included in 2008 and 2012. How difficult was that period for you?

Take this year for instance. We've had no sports due to the coronavirus for about 4-5 months now. There's been a lot of chatter over lack of sports activity, how challenging it is and the uncertainty. 'Will there be Olympics at all?' 'If this persists, what happens to the Olympics?' are some of the doubts in just under six months. I lived through these doubts for 12 years! Every day is new and it brings with it a different thought. You have to try to be positive.

When my event was not included in 2008, I thought I'll focus on 2012. When in 2010 it was excluded from the London Games also, I was unsure of what to do. I couldn't just keep waiting for 2016 and hope. I would be 35 by then. At that time I was married and my wife was going to compete in the all-India kabaddi tournament. I spoke to her and suggested that I should work alongside her because I had the experience and maybe could make it to the Indian team. My wife explained to me that I can still compete in 2016 because I was training regularly. I agreed and continued to work in the javelin throw.

In 2013, I won the World Championship gold and broke the record. The same year, it was decided that Rio Games would include my event. Once that news broke, I moved to Gandhinagar for India training camps. At the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, I won a silver medal. I had prepared well but on the day of the competition, it had become really cold in Korea. It was raining, the temperature had dropped to nine degrees and it is challenging for an Indian to do well in such conditions. My finger wasn't working well so my throw was a mere 58.50 metres (58.45 metres).

In November, my son was born. We moved from my village to Jaipur. He would get up late in the night and that would disturb my sleep. My wife took over and said we're here to take care, you can continue to train. My son was only seven days old when I had to move out to concentrate and train for the Olympics. In the 2015 World Championships, I won a silver medal. That year I hired Sunil Tanwar as a personal coach. He's a former javelin thrower, a friend and now working with SAI (Sports Authority of India). I was looking for a young coach who could help me stretch, demonstrate how I should throw the javelin and to improve myself even more technically.

In 2016, people used to say that I had aged, I couldn't improve on my 62.15 metres from Athens. But it was India's day in Rio de Janeiro. I threw 63.97 metres and broke my own 12-year-old world record.

Firstpost Masterclass Devendra Jhajharia breaks down challenges of a paraathlete in javelin throw

Devendra Jhajharia was recognised with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna by President Ramnath Kovind in 2017. Instagram/Devendra Jhajharia

How would you assess a 2004 Devendra, a 2016 Devendra and the one now?

With time, there is a lot of change in a player. People would think I've won two Olympic gold medals, broken the world record thrice but I feel there's no specific age to learn. There's always something to learn. I don't think I was as knowledgeable in 2004 as I was in 2016. You have to also understand that your body can't take a lot of the exercises that it could earlier. I had done well in preparation for the Olympics this year, we had planned well and changed quite a few things. Now we're looking at 2021, I'm in Gandhinagar for training. I feel I know more now than I did in 2016. With age, your reaction time changes, your technique improves, you work on strength and keep improving.

What does your training regimen look like now?

The training has been disturbed during the lockdown. I couldn't throw javelin during the lockdown and could do very few exercises. Now we've restarted in the last two weeks. Right now, we're putting less stress, working on agility and fitness and not strength. We're focusing only on the technique of the throw and not throwing itself. In the first four weeks, it is important to not injure oneself. I have to be cautious about which muscles to be stressed because I've been away for three months, so even the coach doesn't know how my body will react.

We're doing speed and endurance work too. Doing repetitions of 12 minutes or 300 metres. Doing agility exercises, core exercises, with the medicine ball, using therabands, stretching.

The reason I've been able to create world records, coming from a country like India, is because I competed alongside able-bodied athletes and I wasn't even aware of the para sports.

How about mental fitness and training?

We're working on both. We sat down and discussed how to cover the past three months. We came to a conclusion that I have to be mentally fit first. If I'm not mentally fit, there is no way I can be physically fit. We keep discussing on how I'm progressing. I have to reduce my reaction time so agility exercises are important for that. Reaction time is very important in javelin. On Sunday morning, we assess the previous week. The coach looks at my training data and gives tips on what I have done well and where I need to improve.

How different is javelin throw for an able-bodied athlete and a disabled athlete?

There is plenty of difference between the two. Take, for instance, you're asked to throw a stone and you cover seven metres. Now, for your second throw, your hand is tied from your elbow. In this throw, your balance would be off and the angle would be downward. This is the difference between the two. I don't have a left hand so when able-bodied athletes throw, they move 2-3 metres after release. I can't stop. I need a gap of 3-3.5 metres to stop after release. You use your hand to stop yourself after the release and I can't do that. Bear in mind that you've just run with the javelin and released it, so how will you stay balanced?

How close in record can a disabled javelin thrower come to an able-bodied one?

I wouldn't compare the two. They have different training, they can bench press and do a lot more exercises that we can't. At the same time, I would say that mental strength is key for disabled athletes. When in college, I would compete with able-bodied athletes. The reason I've been able to create world records, coming from a country like India, is because I competed alongside able-bodied athletes and I wasn't even aware of the para-sports.

We didn't have a culture of sports for para-athletes back then. I've been a multiple University champion, won multiple medals at youth level. I threw 66.41 metres at the time and the standard in junior Asian events that time was somewhere around 66-68 metres. I was mentally prepared to compete in able-bodied events. I gave trials for Railway in 2004 and I won gold against other able-bodied athletes. The whole reason for that success is not knowing the presence of para-sports, so I trained my mind accordingly. Mind game is very important.

What is an ideal run-up for a javelin thrower?

It varies for every athlete. I have a 14-metre runway and 8.5 metres for cross. I have varied it over the years. When I was young, the runway was 17 metres. Then gradually I reduced it. Now, it has been constant at 14 and 8.5 metres. It is very important to get it right. Whenever an athlete says they couldn't replicate their training in a tournament, it is because you've not set a proper run-up. If you don't have a good runway, then you won't do well with the release. You have to make sure that you stop after a throw, there's no gap and there's no foul. If you keep focussing on trying not to foul, you won't be a good javelin thrower. You need a free mind. The most important thing in javelin is the run-up.

This is something you can control. What about things you can't, such as the wind, the aerodynamics, the weather?

Sometimes, to train for a tournament in low temperatures, we keep our training in India in low-temperature areas to get accustomed to the cold and to learn how to do well. As far as the wind is concerned, if it's come straight at you, then you need to throw slightly lower. In doing that, the javelin doesn't stay in the air for long and just travels distance based on speed. If you release it higher, the wind will impact the javelin. You have to lower the angle in such a scenario.

Do you look at a specific spot when you're releasing the javelin?

Not a spot per se but have to look at the angle at which the javelin is to be released. You have to make sure your eyesight is not high or low. If your eyesight is higher, the point of javelin stands up. If your eyesight is lower, the javelin will go lower. You need to fix an angle where the javelin needs to be released.

Finland is a top destination for javelin throwers. What makes it so unique?

Some of the aspects are organic food, clear oxygen level and natural water. Most importantly, when we were training, the top-10 athletes in the world were also there. You get a great environment to learn and improve. You look at others on the track and you want to replicate their achievements and success. You can look at other coaches and how they operate with their athletes. There's plenty to learn. There's workshops and strong competitions there. To find everything in one place is challenging. There's plenty of useful equipment too. There's a 200-metre indoor facility so even if it rained, you can train inside.

Did you consider the postponement of the Olympics from 2020 to 2021 was a bit too much for you?

Yes. When the announcement was done, it did bother that we had put in so much effort and it has been postponed. But in present time, we're struggling to live in a pandemic. Given the magnitude of health challenges, sport cannot co-exist. And it shouldn't. You can't be fighting to survive and still be competing in sports. Then I thought that if I can wait 12 years for an Olympics, then one year is nothing. Even if I age by one year, it is but a mere number. What's important is to be psychologically strong to compete when you do.

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