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,’

says Sharad

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