September 13, 2016 -- the fifth day of the track and field event at the Rio Paralympics. The javelin throw F46 event was about to begin. As athletes' names were announced for them to get ready for their throws, one man was missing -- India's Sundar Singh Gurjar, one of the favourites to win. His name was called, but no one came. Fifty-two seconds later, Sundar ran to the area where the announcements were being made. It had taken him a while to understand the announcer's accent, he said, but he was 52 seconds too late, and disqualified from his maiden Paralympics.
Four years later, Sundar was again a favourite for the Paralympic Games, due to follow the Olympics in Tokyo; he'd already won World Championships gold medals in his event in 2017 and 2019 and Tokyo was to be the icing on the cake. Then came Tuesday's announcement postponing both the Olympics and the Paralympics by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sundar's dreams were left hanging, once again.
He reacted with the patience and stoicism that is his style. "I had missed out on 2016 Paralympics. And after waiting for four years for another chance, 2020 Paralympics has been postponed," he says. "Koi na, pehle se hi himmat jutaake aa rahe the, ab thodi aur hi sahi (No worries, I have been determined for so long, now a little more of it is fine)."
"I was going in as the world champion. I was fully confident of winning a gold at the Paralympics with a world record performance," he says. However, he understands that this decision was only necessary. "This pandemic has taken over the world. This decision is only for the betterment of all us athletes. Now my wait will be prolonged to 2021, but I will keep practicing with all I have," he says.
Over the past four years, the 24-year-old has spent all his time training and strengthening his core. Having secured his spot at the Paralympics in November last year after winning his second Worlds medal, Sundar finds humour in the fact that at least no money has gone to waste. "Luckily, my flight tickets hadn't been booked yet," he laughs.
What happened in 2016 left a mark on Sundar's mental health. He had gone to Rio as one of the favourites for the event, having created a national record in javelin after a throw of 68.42m -- higher than Paralympic gold medallist Devendra Jhajharia's eventual winning throw of 63.97m in Rio. Once back in India, he found himself slipping into depression. "A long period of depression followed, I did nothing for a good six months," he says.
It was only after coach Mahaveer Saini's constant encouragement that he regained some confidence. "The 2017 Worlds came soon after, and with that win, that hope that had faded somewhere got re-ignited once again," he says. There began his preparations for the ultimate redemption - a gold at the Paralympics. "2020 was going to be mine. I knew this was the year of payback. But then this postponement happened," he says.
However, this time, he is taking the dejection in his stride. After speaking to his coach and well-wishers, he has found peace with the delay. Now all he is waiting for is the lockdown to get over. "Maybe there was something amiss in my performance, in my preparation, that I'm having to wait another year," he says. "So, I'm going to channel my wait and make all my 70m throws turn into 72, 73 or even 74m ones."
Currently staying in the now-sealed Sawai Mansingh Indoor Stadium in Jaipur, Sundar thinks this postponement will help him slow down a bit, at least till the nationwide lockdown is over. "The stadium has about 4-5 km of area. I don't have to go out of the gates and yet train, run, practice inside," he says. "We are only 3-4 people who are staying back here, so we are maintaining all the measures given by the government."
His coach, Mahaveer Saini, too is no longer allowed to enter the premises of the stadium, leaving Sundar to train for himself. "Coach sir has told me he'll come after a month once the lockdown is removed," he says. "I speak to him on calls, video calls and then watch my old videos, analyse them, try to re-do them -- that's all I'm doing."
One thing he plans to do more of during this time? "Cooking," he starts giggling. "I've become an expert in cooking sabzis (curries), you name it and I know it - paneer (cottage cheese), aloo gobhi (potato and cauliflower), egg curry, I make it all very well. Till the lockdown is done, I'll be cooking delicious meals for myself to spend my time."
Sundar had delayed taking up a job as his concentration was solely on his training. With this postponement though, the possibility of it looks inevitable. "I think I'll have to join a job, most likely in the Rajasthan government itself in the next couple of months," he says. While Sundar's expenses are currently taken care of by the government, a job will give him the security of continuity.
One more thing he has been delaying is a long-awaited trip home. "Jo 2016 me khoya, usko 2020 me paane ki tapasya kar raha hoon, sab chhodke, duniya chhodke, gharwaalon ko chhodke (What I lost in 2016 is all that I have been training to gain back, leaving my world, my family, everything behind)," he says.
Hailing from Karauli, Rajasthan, Sundar says he last went home for an hour in 2018 after winning gold at the Asian Para Games. "I wanted to win the Paralympics gold and go home as champion," he says. "After winning the Worlds in 2019, I thought I'll go once I have the gold in hand, so I delayed my visit. Now I guess I'll only go after 2021."