Sunil Nagar told his son Krishna that he might not be able to help him grow tall, but he certainly could learn to jump as high as he wished. In that simple advice was born India’s sensational gold-plated jump smash as Krishna Nagar became a Paralympic champion on Sunday.
Sunil told his older son to accept the fact (“haqeeqat”) of his then 3-feet frame. “Haqeeqat hai, toh baaki ladke bolenge. Isme naaraaz kya hona (It’s reality, so others will make comments about it. Why take offence)?” It wasn’t the softest cotton-wool that a parent might wrap around an uncertain child grappling with a condition where his height refused to increase. But it prepared the then 12-year-old for the bullying that had started from other boys.
“It was normal for boys to tease. I understood their immaturity. But now look where I’ve reached,” says the 4’5” (137 cm) man from Jaipur, the champion in men’s SH-6 category after beating Hong Kong’s Chu Man Kai 21-17, 16-21, 21-17.
Sunil had noticed his son’s hyperactive athleticism, despite being told at the age of one-and-a-half that the boy would face growth stagnancies, a medical condition he left for his own father, a hospital nurse, to steer and guide him around. “His body had smartness and he never tired unlike other children. Even the teasing after he entered high school would make him sad for a few hours and then he would resume playing sport,” the father recalls. The Nagar house (“He had a first-class lower-middle income upbringing”) saw one corner piled up with footballs, cricket bats, leather balls, basketballs and volleyballs.
“I did high jump, long jump, volleyball and still play basketball with my younger brother Raghav, who is 5’8” now. Competing in basketball with other boys (whom he calls “normal”), helped me grow my jump to smash,” says Krishna.
Sunil, who moved from Bharatpur to Jaipur to work as a naturopath, recalls how he ended up dropping his son at Sawai Man Singh (SMS) Stadium daily to train in volleyball. “Rajasthan has a rich history in volleyball and basketball and he was 100/100 in every sport he played. I made Krishna play them all, to toughen him. He was a good libero but after a point, coaches couldn’t justify picking a short player. That was defying logic,” the father says of a curious decision to always throw him at the deep end of unequal fields. By 2017, Krishna landed at SMS’ badminton courts under coach Yadwinder, who informed him of a competitive category for short-statured players in the sport.
Talent and obsession
The raw material for the jump smash was ripe for honing. “I loved sport so much and played everything so much that I quit college. Teasing me was normal. I stopped thinking about it and it made me mentally strong. But I was so good at badminton that I was obsessed with speed and a tall jump to smash,” says Krishna, who would head to Gaurav Khanna’s academy in Lucknow ahead of the Games.
“His agility is astounding, but needed polishing in how he landed and leg strength – quadriceps, calf and ankle. And we worked on his court craft,” Khanna recalls, adding that the copious speed and acrobatic attack needed tempering. “He was 3-and-a-half feet then. Imagine playing badminton on a lawn tennis court. That’s what it’d feel like for him. I first worked on his muscle strengthening and then unleashed his strokes.”
But the aerial deception, the mounting forehand crosscourt jump smash and backhand service were brimming with talent. “Sometimes he needed to slow down his explosive activities to cut down on errors. He was a negative player before (error-prone) when he increased his speed.” The coach would train him to be discerning and then charge.
He would also play a part in helping other Tokyo medallists at the camp. “We put a black cloth on the net, and made him play from the other side, so opponents only saw the shuttle once it crossed the net,” Khanna recalls.
On finals day in Tokyo, Krishna was focused. “I had to win points anyway – running, diving, retrieving lying on the floor!” he says. He’d take the lead, but Chun Mai would level in the second, stretching him on the forehand deep corner, drawing out errors from a wildly drifty side.
Sunil says the only advice he ever gave his son was: “no aggression, or strokes get spoilt. Josh is dangerous.”
It was controlled acceleration at the net and precision in his crosscourt smashes that would eventually drown Chun Mai and send him leaping into the coach as the shuttle drifted wide. Krishna would patiently tell his colony friends from childhood who were calling him that he’d return calls later. “I’ll go home after four months. I can eat anything, no fuss, as long as it’s tasty,” he would say amidst a clamour to talk to him.
Sunil says there’s a precisely-tempered daal that Krishna likes. “Ghee, jeera, mirchi in the end. It has to be perfect. That’s the only celebration. Our time to celebrate our son has gone now. It’s a Paralympic gold. Now he belongs to the country,” says the father.
Gold eludes Suhas, but contest transcends physical barriers
World Champion in the SL-4 category, Lucas Mazur of France, was tiring with each passing minute. And Suhas Yathiraj had built himself some good momentum in the Paralympics final on Sunday. With his bustling game, and a long jumper’s style of getting the motley crowd of Indian supporters to make a din, the 38-year-old Indian was marching towards the gold medal.
Suhas had a 11-9 lead at the break in the decider, and a knackered opponent hobbling from exhaustion. But the Frenchman had been in big finals before, and was using his left hitting arm to work up incisive angles, even as Suhas reckoned he could get to the finish on adrenaline. Playing from the side from where the drift was wreaking havoc, Suhas would struggle to control the overshooting shuttle.
And be left rueing the lack of experience and composure that could’ve taken him to the top spot on the podium. The 21-15, 17-21, 15-21 scoreline could only net a silver.
The crowd was riveted. The Frenchman was rattled enough by the unseeded Indian wearing a headband and spectacles to start orchestrating his own supporters, who broke into football-like songs. Except, he kept one eye on constructing points and not allowing himself to be swept by emotion. Suhas’ errors would pile up in a jiffy, as he wrongly reckoned that unfiltered attack was the way to go.
Mazur would inch back slowly, count down the number of points needed on his fingers, get the French curling their toes in nervousness and summon all his skills to chomp into the Indian’s momentum. Suhas needed to dial back some of his aggressive intent and prolong Mazur’s exhaustion to break him. But buzzing and in a rush to finish, the Noida-based shuttler would falter.
Suhas would later lament, “Most happy with the silver medal, but most disappointed because I missed gold by a whisker.”
Then again, for large parts of the face-off, both players had those watching hooked to the dramatic action. The rivalry had an edge that can well extend to the Paris Paralympics in 2024. Briefly, the intensity of the match made one forget that a pair of limb impairments were battling it out there. The contest transcended the para barrier.