Mumbai, Aug 21: From attempting suicide thrice to qualifying for his maiden Paralympic Games in Tokyo, life has come a long way for Rakesh Kumar, India's top compound para-archer.
While he was on a high after his recent good performances in para-archery events in the last couple of years, between 2009 and 2014, Kumar went through emotional turmoil following an accident. Unable to walk after the accident and with his family's meagre income stretched to the limit, Kumar was extremely depressed.
"I was just getting on my feet, had started earning enough to take care of my family. But the accident turned my world upside down. At an age when I had to take care of my old parents, they had to take care of me. I had become a huge financial burden on my parents and younger brother," Kumar says.
"Suicide looked the only way out," says Kumar, who won a gold medal in the men's compound open section of the 7th Fazza Para Archery World Ranking Tournament in Dubai, UAE, in February this year.
After the accident, Kumar was confined to a wheelchair and ran a small roadside shop in his hometown Katra, near Jammu when coach Kuldeep Vedwan spotted him.
"The coach felt that I had strong arms and insisted I should try archery and continue if I like it," recalls Kumar.
He tried it and was soon hooked to the sport. He also saw it as a means to support his family, as his younger brother was the sole breadwinner.
He got a lot of support from the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, which has taken care of his funding for equipment and coaching.
"The Archery Association of India, the Paralympic Committee of India, and the Sports Authority of India too have chipped in. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for me to take up the sport as I come from a very poor family and didn't have the financial resources to take up such an expensive sport," adds Kumar.
In the last three years, Kumar has emerged as the best in the country in open compound archery, ranked 10th in the world.
He was part of the team that won gold in the team competition at the European Circuit 2nd leg in 2018 and a bronze in the mixed team event at the 5th Fazza Para Archery World Ranking Tournament in 2019. He has had top-10 finishes in the international tournaments he has participated so far. His consistent performance helped him qualify for the Paralympics and is considered India's best medal hope in compound archery.
Such expectations can result in huge pressure but Kumar is not fazed by expectations.
"I am not thinking of a medal - God willing, it will happen. What I am more bothered about is my performance. I will be happy if I manage to give my 100 per cent but fail to win a medal. However, I will be very disappointed if I fail to give my best performance in Tokyo," says Kumar.
The 35-year-old Kumar, who travels for tournaments with his younger brother and coach, was part of a camp at the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Sonipat for the last few months and the pandemic disrupted his preparations for the Paralympics.
"The lockdown and shutdown of the camp did disrupt my preparations but I had some space near my house in Katra where I set up a target and practiced whenever I could. I also kept in touch with my coach over the phone and would send him videos of my practice," Kumar explains.
Kumar also utilised the break to work with a sports psychologist to work on the mental aspect of the game. He is aware the Paralympics will be the biggest event he's participated in so far and therefore he worked on concentration and mental toughness, aspects that may come into focus when Kumar takes on some of the world's best compound archers.
The field at Tokyo includes Marcel Pavlik of Slovakia, the World No 1 in W2 category, No. 3 Nail Gatin of Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC), Serhiy Atamanenko of Ukraine, the top seed in ST class, and Bair Shivaev of RPC World No 5 in W2 category.
The work on mental aspects during the Covid-19 break will come in handy at the Yumenoshima Ranking Field in Tokyo. And Kumar is ready for the challenge.