As the trackside announcer at Kozhikode's CH Muhammad Koya Stadium listed out competitors and their achievements ahead of the men's high jump competition at the Federation Cup on Monday, Paralympics medal winner Praveen Kumar admitted feeling like a bit of an imposter.
"They were going through all the names. And there were athletes with a personal best of 2.26m, others with a best of 2.20m. A few had personal bests of 2.15m. And then when I realised I had a personal best of just 2.07m. That was the lowest of everyone. Everyone is six foot and over. I'm the shortest among everyone at just 5 foot 4. I started thinking just what am I doing here," says Praveen.
That's not all. Not only did Praveen have the lowest personal best jump, the 19-year-old, who won silver in the T64 high jump category at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo last year, was also the only differently abled athlete to be competing in a field of 11 elite Indian athletes. Ultimately, Praveen says he closed his eyes and willed those dark thoughts away. "I thought about what my goals were and why I was competing here. I saw the face of my coach and my parents telling me it was going to be OK."
By the time he walked away from the track, Praveen had more than justified his inclusion and decision to compete in the high jump event. He cleared a height of 2.05m and eventually finished sixth.
For Praveen, medalling at the Tokyo Paralympics had fulfilled nearly all the ambitions he had set for himself after he first started training in the high jump back in 2018. "After the Paralympic Games, my life changed completely. I got so much respect from society. I became financially independent. I saw the change in the way that my parents saw me. I was able to fulfill my coach's dreams and was able to earn him respect in the way people saw what he did."
But as the months went on, he felt he needed a new challenge. "All my personal problems were solved with the Paralympic medal. But I needed new goals. And the one that my coach Satyapal Singh and I decided to set for ourselves was to compete and win a medal among regularly abled athletes."
It would be a major challenge. A few disabled athletes have competed in regularly abled competition in the past including Sumit Antil who won a gold at the Paralympic Games last year. The challenge of competing with a handicap has always been too much to bridge though. Praveen, who grew up with a congenital impairment that affects the bones connecting his hip to his left leg, knows this too.
Praveen has another reason for competing in regularly abled competition. "Going forward I will reduce the number of para competitions I take part in. I feel there are a lot of new talented para athletes coming up. I don't want to take away their chance of success. Others also deserve a chance. If they get that medal, they will be motivated to do better. I already have a Para Olympic silver. If my gold at a domestic meet goes to someone else, they will be able to set their life just like I have been able to do," he says.
Praveen Kumar who won a silver medal at the Tokyo Paralympics competed in the men's high jump at the Federation Cup. He finished 6th with 2.05m . "I got into sports because I wanted to prove a disabled boy can play. Now I want to prove I can medal in a regular competition." pic.twitter.com/JIwiN5yKnF
- jonathan selvaraj (@jon_selvaraj) April 4, 2022
Praveen says he would likely have been able to meet his personal best on Monday but for the fact that the height of the bar at the Federation Cup was raised in 5cm increments until the 2.10m range unlike in the para events where it is raised by a smaller amount.
But he is determined to overcome that too. "When I first wanted to play sports, people would say I couldn't ever do it. I always felt I had to prove something then and I did it. Now when people say I can't be competitive at an regularly-abled event, I have that same desire to prove them wrong," he says.
While he wasn't able to fulfill his ambition of a medal, Praveen still won the respect of his compatriots, who clapped for him as he made his final attempt down the runway in Kozhikode. As for himself, he's glad he took the chance at the Federation Cup but is unforgiving of himself too. "I had twisted my ankle a few weeks ago so I was competing with some pain today. But although I know it's still only the first competition of a long journey for me, I'm feeling a little sad because I wasn't able to give my best today."