20, SHARAD KUMAR Yadav does not have the serious, self-possessed air of an athlete obsessed with winning a gold medal. He flashes a smile, adjusting the bandana that holds his long hair back, right before he starts his seven-step run-up towards the horizontal bar. In a moment, he has used his right leg to take off — thrusting his arms and knees upwards, eyes on the bar, his back arched. In an impossible ballet of sinew, grace and momentum, he hurdles backward over the bar, left leg in the air. According to the International Paralympics Committee’s ( IPC) rankings, Sharad is currently the number one high-jumper in the world in the F-42 classification. The reason most people forget about his disability is because Sharad makes winning look easy.
In 1992, Surendra Yadav and his wife Kumkum were dismayed to discover that their two-year-old son, Sharad, had received a spurious polio vaccination, and had developed poliomyelitis. While almost 90 percent of polio infections do not show any symptoms, in Sharad’s case, the virus entered his central nervous system, affecting his spine, destroying his motor neurons and causing an asymmetric paralysis of the left leg. He shows no signs of resentment as he recalls the brutal honesty with which his father informed the family about his decision to send Sharad (then four) and his eightyear-old brother away to boarding school. “He told me, ‘They will look after you better than I can right now.’ We were in a financially tough situation. I’m glad he took that decision.”
Most of Sharad’s earliest memories are from St Paul’s in Darjeeling. Thankfully, the only distinction between boarders was made on the basis of seniority — something that Sharad believes shielded him from worrying much about how he was ‘different’ from everyone else. Around Class VII, when he began to avidly participate in sports like tennis and basketball, he felt like he had finally come into his own. “I was breaking all the sporting records my seniors had set, especially my brother’s, and it felt really good,” he laughs. The only instance he remembers of being heckled for his disability in school was at an inter-school event, where the competing school’s champions took offence to the fact that their girlfriends were giving Sharad a little too much attention. Needless to say, retelling this story does not make him uncomfortable so much as it makes him smile.
Around the age of 15, Sharad became conscious of the fact that there was a limit to which he could excel — a limit that did not exist for able-bodied athletes. “I began to feel like there was always someone who’d be able to run faster, jump higher and move better simply because all their limbs worked,” he says. At this time, a teacher told him about the Paralympics and Sharad began to see his disability as an advantage, something that gave him purpose.
This newly focussed ambition saw him move to Delhi, where he could begin training for the National Paralympics under a professional coach. Accustomed to living away from home, Sharad says the only thing that truly terrified him was joining a co-educational school. “My father always said, if you can’t be famous, be mischievous — so I got into a lot of trouble,
‘Given the competition between ablebodied athletes, it’s impossible to
create another Sachin. That spot is still open for us,’