Sitting upright in a wheel chair, wearing a blue blazer that fit snugly across his broad shoulders, Rakesh Kumar smiles reticently as he shows his bronze medal, won in the mixed team event at the Fazza Para Archery World Rankings International in Dubai in April. It was the only medal India got at the event, and Kumar, 34, who is paralyzed from the waist down after a road accident, is proud of it.
That he is alive at all is something of a miracle to him.
Ten years ago, on 19 January, Kumar was in a car with seven other passengers travelling from Jammu to his home in Katra, the small town that serves as base for pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi temple. Soon after leaving Jammu, the car skidded off the road and plunged 400 feet into a gorge. Five of the nine people in the car died.
“I was pulled out by locals and police,” Kumar recalls. “I was in my senses but couldn’t move a limb.”
Later, in the hospital, he was to learn that he had a spinal injury that will leave him paralyzed.
In the next eight years, Kumar tried to take his own life thrice.
Then, two years ago, while he sat in his wheelchair on a pavement in Katra and killed time, a car pulled up to him.
“A man came out and said he was the archery coach at the local academy,” Kumar says. “And he asked me to accompany him to the range.”
Kumar did not even know the sport existed. But that day at the academy he watched children shooting arrows, laughing, competing, and something changed.
“I went to the Para national championships next month, travelling to Secunderabad, just to watch,” he says.
When he came back to Katra, he went to the academy and picked up a bow.
“My arrows were missing the target and my arms tired very quickly,” he says. “But I wanted to do this. I borrowed money from my brother to a hire a auto-rickshaw to take me to the academy from my house and back.”
In October that year, Kumar got his first compound bow. “That changed my life. I never missed practice. I became No. 1 (W2 Open category, for paraplegic athletes) in the country at the national trials in Rohtak on March 24, 2018.”
It was the beginning of a great run for Kumar, who graduated to winning medals at international tournaments last year, and has not stopped since. On June 3, he will be in action at the World Para Archery Championships in the Netherlands.
He will be joined there by his teammate Adil Ansari, 38, who is a quadriplegic. When he shoots, Ansari has to be strapped down to his wheelchair—“If I pick up the bow, I’ll fall on one side otherwise,” says Ansari.
Ansari is a three-time national champion in his category, and he missed out on a medal by just two points at Dubai, and is hoping he will do better at the Worlds.
As a young boy, Ansari was a strong swimmer and a diving enthusiast, who was more likely to be found in the rivers and creeks in Bhiwandi, the industrial city 20km from Mumbai, than in classrooms. In 2002, he jumped into the Kharoli river, but misjudged just how shallow it was that day. He hit his head on a rock and slipped into a coma.
“The doctors gave me 48 hours. Because dirty water had entered my lungs, I also developed life-threatening pneumonia, which wasn’t responding to treatment,” said Ansari.
He survived, but lost all movement in his limbs.
Ansari points to a furrowed scar running all the way down to his elbow. “This is what separates the region which still has some muscular activity and the region which has wasted away.”
Ansari picked up archery on the advice of a friend.
To shoot, he needs more than a little help from Majida, his wife of 13 years. Majida helps him nock the arrow on the bow and Ansari pulls it till the string touches his cheek. He then uses his “small innovation”—a contraption made from a peg (used to hang clothes) and a string—to release the arrow with his mouth.
“Had Majida not come in my life, I wouldn’t have achieved this,” he says. He had met her when he had decided to finish his schooling in 2006, four years after his accident; Majida was also appearing for her Class 12 exams at the same location.
At Netherlands, Ansari’s target is to shoot well enough to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. “I am certain I will,” he says. Majida agrees with a nod.