(By Rahul Pandey)
4 April 2018, the first ray of sun on the easternmost tip of the Gold Coast, Australia will mark the beginning of a new day in the land down under. But for an Asian country, 4824 miles away, it will offer a gateway to a new tomorrow. For a country of 1.3 billion people, it would offer a safe passage to a place where reservation and caste hierarchy are two unknown and unconsidered phenomenon.
The 21st Commonwealth Games are here, and for 225 athletes representing the world’s second largest nation, it will be a once in a lifetime moment to live their dream. To witness the national flag, rise above others’ and giving the whole nation, yet another opportunity to sing with pride and exuberance, our national anthem.
But as most of the eyes will be looking forward to see the Nehwals, the Sindhus, the Sushils and the Narangs, on some other part of Gold Coast, a new name will earn its first chant, its first fan moment, its first major headline. New stories will begin, with new stars on the verge of becoming legends for their nation, and maybe even for the sporting fraternity.
As someone has quite rightly said, “A country’s success in sports cannot be judged by mere silverwares, but on the basis of it’s foundation in youth development.”
India over the last 2 decades has enjoyed a considerable success in sports. A new generation of players have come forward and made a huge impact on the big stage. The 2018 Commonwealth Games offers a perfect stage to a spree of young debutants who will be facing their toughest challenge in one of the toughest backyards.
Last year, 20-year old Neeraj Chopra travelled all the way from his native place, Khandra in Panipat, Haryana to Bydgoszcz in Poland. His trip resulted in one of the biggest ‘what if’ moments in Indian Athletics history as he became the first Indian athlete to win a gold at any world championships, this one coming in the Junior World Championships. The taste of a gold was even more sweet as it came in a sport [Javellin throw] which no one would’ve thought at that moment. The boy from Panipat first came to limelight when he won a gold medal in the 2016 South Asian Games with a throw of 82.23 m, which equalled the Indian national record. Despite of such world class performances, he failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. One event that still haunts him.
“I couldn’t sleep for many nights to come. It was something that i couldn’t accept as an individual. But now i feel that i have learnt how things work. You have great days and then you have really bad days. The key is to keep your head straight.”
Coached under Garry Calvert, Neeraj will be India’s biggest hope towards winning the first ever gold by any Indian Javellin thrower at the Commonwealth games.
From 125th ranked player in the world to 49th in eight months, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran has had quite a journey.
“I feel i have a very good chance of winning gold medal in the singles”, says the 25-year old who has an air of confidence in the way he speaks, in the way he handles his social media accounts and most importantly in the way he approaches his game. But things were very different an year ago, when he was knocked out of the Asian Championships in a round-of-64 game. His ranking fell down to 25 with that one particular defeat. Table Tennis being more of a mental game than a physical, left a significant impact on his mindset.
“I am a person who never used to take much risk in his life, maybe because of my background, coming from a South Indian conservative family,” said Sathiyan.
“In a country as big as ours, taking a risk is a big call. You need to have a back-up plan for your career. So when i decided to opt for Table Tennis rather than engineering, i thought i had broken the shackles. It wasn’t until the defeat, last April that i knew i had to take more than calculated risks and try and improvise my game. I might end up losing but atleast the opposition would know that i am capable enough to plant new ideas,” he further added.
The 2016 Belgium Open winner already displayed his quality play in 2018, when he defeated the world’s 27th ranked Yuva Oshima to enter the men’s singles pre quarterfinals berth of the Qatar Open. He even recieved the TOISA Table Tennis player of the year award 2018 [Jury Choice], displaying his overcome of the mental loss he had suffered eight months back.
It is hard to believe that someone who gave up boxing and martial arts, plays Volleyball for warm up, indulges in bungee-jumping and loves ice-skating is a 16-year old who will represent India in shooting [10M air rifle] at Gold Coast.
Manu Bhaker is a restless soul from Charkhi Dadri, Jhajjar, Haryana who introduced herself to the sporting world when she won silver at the 2017 Asian Junior Championships which was followed by 9 gold medals in the National Games held in Kerela, that included a win over multiple World Cup medalist, Heena Sidhu.
In the 2018 International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup held at Guadlajara, Mexico, Bhaker won the gold medal in Women’s 10M air pistol, defeating two-time world champion Mexico’s Alejandra Zavala.
Her father Ramkishan when asked about her preparations for CWG calmly said, “We at home ensure two things, one that we don’t mention anything about medals, second she doesn’t stumble on any article about her, because she is not a media-recluse.”
He further added, “She is very competitive, be it academics or sports. The best part about it being that she doesn’t talks, boasts or celebrate good results, not even a single time.”
Among the emerging crops of Indian male swimmers, there is a 17-year old who won the 2017 nationals by sweeping all three backstroke events [50m, 100m and 200m], each in record times. Srihari Nataraj, who qualified for the Youth Olympics to be held in Argentina in October, with a best ever finish by an Indian in Asian Age Group Championships, feels he has had a massive transformation since he first played the nationals, back in 2010.
“When i was young Rohit Halvaldar [2005 Nationals champion] was a very big inspiration. But as years passed by, the goals started changing. Now i try to see how top swimmers around the world train,” said the 17-year old.
He further added, “Michael Phelps is my biggest influence. His coach says he never gets tired. That’s the level i want to achieve.”
Nataraj who already holds 4 national and 3 state records, expressed that he would love to mark 2018 Gold Coast with his first international one.
Tejaswin Shankar rewrote his own outdoor national record for high jump [2.26m], with a 2.28 leap this year at the Federation Cup. The 19-year old looked rather comfortable while doing so and was extremely close to achieving the 2.31 mark.
“I think i got too excited. The idea of making such a massive jump on the Indian soil did fluster me a bit. I have worked on that aspect in the last 6 months,” said Shankar who is a Business Administration student at Kansas State University.
The high jumper who is extremely popular on social media follows a particular trend when it comes to featuring in tournaments. Two days prior, he cuts himself off completely from social media and mobile phone. Even a repeat of his performance in Federation Cup could see Shankar on the podium at Gold Coast, but he’s aiming higher.
“I need to be better than the last one, otherwise what’s the point.” A line that truly defines the current crop of young players who are willing to go through all the challenges in their path and cross the finish line unphased.