Nishad Kumar’s first reaction on learning that he won the silver medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics last month was one of disbelief.
“I asked the technical official four times if I had indeed pulled it off!” Nishad laughs. “And then I finally realised that I had won silver in my first-ever Paralympics.”
Nishad Kumar had just tried and failed to clear the 2.09m mark in the T-47 men’s high jump.
T47 is a category for competitors with a below elbow or wrist amputation or impairment.
Nishad had, however, sailed over the bar set at 2.06m, equalling the Asian record in his category. It was enough to win him the silver medal, sharing it with the USA’s Dallas Wise, who had cleared the same mark.
For Nishad Kumar, the moment was a sweet reward for the difficult time he had faced in the build-up to the Paralympics - including contracting COVID-19 twice, staying away from home for a year and dealing with a professional training regimen.
“I was feeling confident the moment I landed in Tokyo. Me, my coach and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) all worked extremely hard for this medal, I am feeling very happy that it paid off,” Nishad stated.
Late jump to para-sports
When he was seven years old, Nishad Kumar suffered a bad accident when his right hand somehow got stuck in a fodder-cutting machine at home. He had to be rushed to a nearby hospital and his hand eventually had to be amputated.
A gruesome accident at such a young age could have been destabilising but luckily for Nishad Kumar, sports and athletics, in particular, provided him an escape.
“They often say that people in Haryana have sports running through their veins. For me, it also helped that my mother was a sportsperson when she was young and she pushed me into pursuing it when I was nine,” said Nishad Kumar.
It proved to be an inspired decision as a young Nishad soon won a high jump silver in the national school games.
However, he only shifted to para-athletics in 2017, after getting his hands on a smartphone and watching YouTube videos.
“I was not aware of para-sports because there was not much news about it, and more so in villages. In 2017, before the Under-19 nationals, I competed in the state event and won Rs 3,500 (about USD46) as reward,” revealed Nishad Kumar.
“So my family bought me a smartphone with that money since I was going away from home for the nationals. Only then did I watch a few videos on YouTube and a few people told me I could take part in para-sports.”
The access to a smartphone also gave Nishad Kumar a new inspiration in the form of Tokyo 2020 men’s high jump champion, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim.
“I instantly related to Mutaz when I watched videos of his performances. I felt my height was similar so it gave me the belief that even I could do the same. He is a three-time Olympic medallist and definitely my sporting inspiration,” stated Nishad.
Training at SAI
Nishad Kumar shifted base to Panchkula, Haryana for training in 2017 and the following year, won the high jump silver at the national para athletics championships.
He soon began training at the SAI campus in Bengaluru and the upgrade in facilities initially surprised him. However, Nishad Kumar would soon get used to it.
“SAI had a great gym and they made me follow a strict diet. I never had a physio earlier and now, it helped me greatly with recovery,” he said.
“I had a set timetable to train - a few hours in the morning and again in the afternoon. In fact, I trained too much at times and the coaches would often warn me against it,” Nishad laughed.
The youngster would also not visit home often - because it hampered his strict schedule. The support from SAI was massive, especially so in October 2020, when Nishad contracted COVID for the first time.
“That was a pretty serious case, my training had stopped completely and my coach was worried. But I kept my cool - I knew I had to let this pass on its own. The people at SAI were very helpful, they kept motivating me and told me I would be back in action soon,” Nishad recalled.
He would contract COVID again in March 2021, a few months before the Paralympics, but did not experience too many symptoms and was back to training soon.
The calm and collected personality of Nishad Kumar went a long way in delivering him that coveted Paralympic silver medal. Nishad, though, has higher ambitions.
Target: Asian Games and worlds
“My target for next year will be the Para Asian Games and the world championships. I won bronze at the worlds in 2019 and hopefully, I can do better this time,” Nishad stated.
“I feel like the Tokyo Paralympics has also raised our profile and created more awareness in the country. The media coverage has brought more eyeballs, now every kid in every part of India knows about us.”
Raising that awareness to gather more support also forms a key part of Nishad Kumar’s future.
“Our main aim for Nishad now is to increase his digital presence and get him a few sponsorship deals. A sports apparel or footwear brand is a priority, as it is probably the most important thing for an athlete,” said Rahul Trehan, the chief operating officer (COO) of IOS Sports and Entertainment, the agency that manages Nishad.
“There is a buzz around Paralympians now. We want them to get as much recognition as able-bodied athletes and with a performance like Tokyo, the demand for para-athletes will increase,” Trehan added.
Nishad Kumar is taking some well-deserved rest after calling off the remainder of the season in order to return with renewed energy for 2022 in what could be another momentous year in his young career.