Tokyo Paralympics: Indian para-athletes script history with record 19-medal haul

Inspiring, amazing, and unstoppable.

India’s paralympians were all of these things and more during a historic campaign at the Tokyo Games, where they won an unprecedented 19 medals, including five gold, to finish 24th overall, the highest ever.

There were also eight silver and six bronze medals in the tally, but most importantly, it was a performance in which history was written virtually every day, with the contingent living up to the Games’ theme of ‘Spirit in Motion.’

The medal rush continued on the final day of games, with Krishna Nagar winning gold after Noida’s District Magistrate Suhas Yathiraj signed off his fantastic run with a silver to round out a remarkable badminton performance.

The duo’s performance was the frosting on the cake for the delegation, which discovered new heroes, honoured old ones, and firmly entrenched para-sports in India.

In total, 54 people travelled to Tokyo, with 17 of them receiving medals.

It was undoubtedly an improved performance, although to call it that would be an understatement given India’s entire Games haul of only 12 before to this edition.

To put things in perspective, India had 19 athletes competing in five sports at the 2016 Rio Olympics, with four of them winning medals.

“The Incredible Ascension of Indian Paralympians! It’s the start of a new era “Anurag Thakur, the minister of sports, declared as much.

There were other firsts to rejoice over, and the joy lingered throughout the Games.

Avani Lekhara and Singhraj Adana, both shooters, finished on the podium twice, establishing their own legacies in their first Paralympics.

Lekhara, who was 19 at the time, became the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Games (10m air rifle) and later a bronze in the 50m rifle 3 positions, ensuring that her name would be remembered in any India-centric Paralympic quiz.

The adolescent, who was paralysed from the waist down after being injured in a vehicle accident in 2012, put up an inspirational performance.

And, come to think of it, all her father planned to accomplish by taking her to the shooting range was for Lekhara to release the fury she had harboured since the accident that had rendered her wheelchair-bound.

She was India’s flag-bearer in the closing ceremony, an honour she deserved after a magnificent performance.

Adana, 39, on the other hand, was a late bloomer after falling in love with the pistol while dropping his nephew off at the range.

With his right hand handicapped, Adana won a bronze in the 10m air pistol and a silver in the 50m pistol, ensuring that India had more than one double-medalist at the same Games for the first time in history.

Harvinder Singh (bronze) won the first medal in archery after receiving incorrect dengue treatment, Bhavinben Patel (silver) won the first medal in table tennis, and short-statured Nagar and polio-stricken Pramod Bhagat won a stunning two gold medals in badminton.

With Manish Narwal, 19, already a world champion and now a Paralympic champion, another shooting star appeared on the horizon.

Narwal’s right hand is handicapped, and he wanted to be a player when he was younger, but fate had other ideas for the Lionel Messi enthusiast.

Not to mention the legends, such as Devendra Jhajharia (javelin throw) and Mariyappan Thangavelu (kneeling) (high jump).

The two long-time flag-bearers of Indian para-sports, who won gold medals in 2016 Rio, returned to the podium with silver medals this time, sealing their place among India’s all-time greats.

The difficulties they overcame, like every competitor they competed against, were more important than their medals.

So, if Lekhara regained her strength after a vehicle accident with a rifle in her hand, Jhajharia, at 40 and with an arm lost to electrocution as a youngster, demonstrated what true endurance in sport means.

Nearly half of India’s medal haul this time came from track and field, with javelin thrower Sumit Antil shining brightest with a gold medal after shattering his own world mark five times.

Antil was pursuing a wrestling career, as his family desired, but a bike accident resulted in the loss of his left leg, forever altering his life.

With a silver in high jump at the age of 18, Praveen Kumar became India’s youngest medalist, setting an Asian record for a debutant whose left leg is crippled.

Sundar Singh Gurjar, who placed second to Jhajharia in the javelin throw, was another shining light.

Gurjar lost his left hand in an accident, and he was disqualified from his first Paralympics in Rio after failing to register in time for his event.

After the heartbreak, he fell into sadness and considered never throwing the javelin again, but his coaches persuaded him to try again.

Gurjar was on the clock and on the podium this time.

In truth, every one of them, even those who did not win a medal, are paragons of bravery, having faced and overcome challenges that were difficult at best and impossible at worst.

After able-bodied competitors won a record seven Olympic medals last month, including the first individual gold in 13 years, the performance was the perfect way to round off India’s trip to Tokyo.

The paralympians, on the other hand, far exceeded their total.

In the process, they imparted life lessons about what it takes to overcome adversity.

If a world devastated by COVID-19 needed motivation to keep fighting, Tokyo provided it in spades.

The Games actually lived up to a catchphrase coined to advertise the event — “At the Olympics, heroes are born. The Paralympics are a place where heroes are born.”

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