'I am not going to leave': Ice skater Vishwaraj Jadeja on pursuing a winter sport amid various challenges
India's top ice skater Vishwaraj Jadeja speaks on challenges of pursuing a winter sport in Netherlands in the last 12 years.
It's a little room where Vishwaraj Jadeja is sitting, facing the camera. One can see his bicycle hung on the wall. There is a picture board behind him carrying many clicks from the Himalayas where he has been skating for some time, some news articles about his races, but what draws your attention first is the Olympic rings.
Jadeja says he has those rings stuck to the board to remind him why he is there, in Utrecht in the Netherlands, far away from his home in Ahmedabad in India. That is to see himself represent India in Olympics one day in long-distance ice skating, becoming the first Indian to do so. It's been 12 years and the going has been tough but the dream has not faded away.
When Jadeja was 14, he took up roller skating and became state champion thrice, representing Gujarat five times at Nationals. But then a realisation hit him, that the sport he was pursuing, isn't in the Olympic charter. From there, he started thinking hard over his options and after passing Class 12, the decision-making became slightly easier as three engineering colleges had refused to take him in. There were a couple of options in front of him - either end his sporting career and try something else or move to Europe and change his sport, even if so slightly and take up long-distance speed skating.
As fate would have it, he moved to Denmark initially to pursue studies and skating, found a coach with the help of a journalist, and began his journey on the ice. The coach was Wim Nieuwenhuizen, who is known for training skaters who went on to become world champions. In fact, the Dutch media calls him the champion maker. In him, he has a great coach and a man as crazy as Jadeja. Wim told Jadeja before taking him under his wings, "If you are crazy enough to come far away from India to do my sport, I am crazy enough to coach you."
Since coming under Wim's wings, Jadeja has taken part in 220 races for India and holds 65 national records. Quite clearly, he is the best ice skater in the country. But this journey has not been easy, especially on financial grounds.
During his early days in Europe, Jadeja would distribute newspapers at night, for two reasons. One to get acclimatised to the weather in the northern part of the continent, which was extremely cold, and two, to keep money inflow intact.
In the last few years, what has made him not lose hope despite some disappointments in terms of injuries is the financial help from the Gujarat government. Besides that, he had people, friends and colleagues, who made his life easier in the Netherlands.
"There have been moments where it was very difficult, the coach would not take any fee from me, the local tracks would let me skate for free. But that also cannot be sustained for a long time. I also did not want that image. I knew there are resources available in the government system and the sponsor system. Eventually, the Gujarat government stepped in during Asian Games and since then there has been a constant flow of support. Obviously, it is not complete support but it covers a lot of expenses. It at least keeps my senses intact and keeps me calm," said Jadeja.
Every now and then, Jadeja knocked on the doors of many sports foundations as well but to no avail. His conviction and medals also did not help.
And Jadeja has a reason why.
"I have been in touch with most of the foundations. But it's more like what you don't understand, you fear and what you fear, you don't go behind it or support it. Which is fine, when I started I did not expect any support and I had to figure it out and luckily, I have been able to figure it out so far. What are you going to do? Pack and leave? That is not an option. I am not going to leave."
For the last 12 years, he says, the financial part has been like this. It has never been a smooth sail but he has managed it somehow.
"Finances throughout have not been stable at all. It is a never-ending story for an athlete from India in a winter sport. You have to accept that you are not going to get the support that summer athletes get. I accepted it early on. In spite of that, I wanted to make sure my efforts don't go in vain."
How he makes sure his efforts don't go in vain is reflected in how alert he was to leave India just before the lockdown was announced in the country. Jadeja was in Ladakh when the shutdown began to happen all over Europe courtesy the coronavirus pandemic. He kept a tab on the developments in the Netherlands and when he realised it was about time to leave India, he booked his tickets and left. Had he been even ten days late, he would be stuck in India for the next few months and the training would have gone for a toss. His alertness saved himself from a year without training, which he says would have been dreadful.
In the Netherlands, he and his team missed only ten days of training because the lockdown there was not as severe as in India.
"Training was not missed that much. We missed what like 10 days of training...I have cycled around 6,000 kms since April. And recently we did a sports medical test and we have made a big progression since last year. I got a lot of time to introspect as well during this period."
But the pandemic has resulted in one major problem, the lack of funds.
"The government support and sponsor which was supposed to come in has not come in yet due to the pandemic which is understandable. I am hoping it will change but if it does not that then we will be in a very sticky situation. Because I was hoping that after four medals in Winter World Masters, where I was the only Indian athlete, finally, all resources would be available but it did not happen because of the pandemic."
When it comes to resources, Jadeja explains what he is talking about.
"Look at it this way. If there's a war happening and I am one of the soldiers, I basically have a stick and the opponent has a tank. I have to fight and if I am losing, my boss is asking, why are you losing? So if the support comes, it levels the playing field."
For the last ten years, Jadeja has been worrying about paying for the ice skating stadium, ice skating rinks, food and nutrition, among other things.
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Different track different possibilities. Haarlem Ice Track. . You can’t control the out come of any thing. But you can still try ! . The #iceskating season is upon us. Mind over body! Looking forward to more development on and off the ice ! . #2020 #trainhard #eatclean #sleep #repeats #neverstopexploringtraveling . Just keep speed #iceskating⛸ #winteriscoming
He said, "Finances when they come in, you make sure all training programs are taken care of, food and nutrition, coach and training as well.
"I have no physio, my coach is my everything. It would help to have extra support. I am not complaining because I don't want to get into the negative spiral as it is a dark place. It will happen when it has to happen."
In January this year, Jadeja became the first Indian to win four medals - three silver and one bronze - at the Winter World Masters Games in Innsbruck, Austria. In an interview with Sportsar, he had said he has been away from the circuit for a long time and the year 2020 would be his comeback year. 2020 did not turn out to be on the expected lines, for most of us, including Jadeja. But the year has given him some time to introspect and look inwards.
Sports is more about failures than success and Jadeja has dealt with this reality first hand in the last decade or so. Be it the series of injuries that ruled him out of the race for Olympic berth in 2018 or the constant struggle as a winter sports athlete, he has seen it all. But he still hopes his journey, his story won't go in vain.
It took Shiva Kesavan 24 years to make heads turn to Luge. One wonders then how many years will it take for Jadeja to do the same for ice skating.
But Jadeja sees a huge potential of ice speed skating in India and hopes that one day there will be solid infrastructure built in the country filled with one billion hopes.
"In India, we have 11 states where Winter Sports are possible. There is a lot of talent and in the end, it is about niyat (willingness), from government bodies and administration. If they want to, it is possible."
The races have begun in the Netherlands and Europe and Jadeja will be back on the tracks after a long gap, with his eyes on Asian Winter Games next year which he hopes to take place. And then in 2022, the Winter Games will be the ultimate target for Jadeja.
Till then, he will wake up every day and look at those Olympic rings in his room and think about the words his coach had spoken when someone had asked him: "What is Vish(waraj)'s talent?"
"He has no talent. We have to teach him everything. technically or otherwise."
"What do you mean? He must have some talent?"
"Oh yes, his talent is that he never gives up."
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