Praveen Kumar never imagined being a Paralympic silver-medallist at 18 but being a driven athlete, the high-jumper left no stone unturned to get to this moment either even if it meant creating a makeshift practice area for himself when COVID-19 lockdowns caused closure of stadiums. (More Sports News)
Praveen, son of a poor farmer at a village near Jewar in Gautam Buddha Nagar district, clinched the silver medal in the men's high jump T64/T44 event of the Paralympics by setting a new Asian record of 2.07m this morning.
The youngster had battled COVID-19 and also its effect on his training last year. Desperate to train for the Games here, Praveen had dug up a small pit near his house and filled it with soft mud to ensure he could carry on practising despite not having access to a landing mattress.
He created the space to ensure that his knees did not take too much of a beating.
"My school life was mostly about sports. But at that time I did not know I will reach at this level one day. I was playing volleyball initially in school, but then slowly came to know of para athletics and took up high jump," Praveen said during a virtual press conference organised by Eurosport and Paralympic Committee of India.
"I came to know about Paralympics and how to take part in it after searching on google," added the high jumper, whose congenital impairment affects the bones that connect his hip to his left leg.
Explaining how he came to rise to this level, Praveen said, "I took part in a district level competition where I met Ashok Saini sir who gave me phone number of Satyapal sir (his current coach).
"I contacted (Satyapal) sir and then he found out in which classification I will compete. He identified me and said he will take me in. This was 2018," said Praveen who is a B.A. second year student in the Motilal Nehru College in Delhi.
Praveen, who is in his second year in the international circuit, said fellow students and teachers of his school wondered how he will do well in his sport given his impairment but they later began supporting him.
"I won a silver in junior para athletics world championships in 2019 and won gold in the para athletics Grand Prix earlier this year (in Dubai), so people started supporting me."
He finished fourth in the Para Athletics (senior) World Championships in 2019.
Talking about Friday's competition, he said, "I was a bit low in confidence when I cleared 1.97m in my second attempt but I regained confidence after jumping 2.01m. I told myself I will give my best whatever it takes, whether rain or not.
"There was pressure while trying to jump 2.10m. In the final attempt, I just thought of doing my best and it was a very good attempt but there was some problems in my landing and so I could not clear it," said Praveen, who was congratulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on phone.
His coach Satyapal said he had some reservation about the youngster's short height but found that Praveen had very strong muscles in his right leg.
"His left leg is the impaired one but his right leg has very strong muscles. So, despite his short stature I took him under me. Height (of athlete) is very important in high jump," Satyapal told PTI about his ward who is around 5'5".
"He came to me with his father in 2018 and I found out about his talent. He is from a very poor family but very sincere and dedicated."
Praveen had been down with COVID-19 in April and he could not train properly this year.
"Due to lockdowns, he could not train properly. High jumpers need mattress to train but he could not do that as the stadiums were closed. Moreover, he contracted COVID-19 this year," Satyapal, who trains Praveen at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, said.
Satyapal said Praveen is a sure shot gold medal candidate at the Asian Para Games next year in Hangzhou in China.
"He started competing in international events only two years back and now he has won a silver in Paralympics. He is just 18 and he will be the country's top Paralympian in future.
"Our target will be to win the Asian Para Games next year and gold in 2014 Paris Paralympics with world record."
The world record in T44 high jump is 2.19m.
T44 classification is for athletes with a leg deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or impaired passive range of movement in the legs.