The only complain coach Sandeep Kumar has of Special Olympics Bharat athlete Gajendra is that he answers in monosyllables when not talking to his friends. A shotputter and runner, the 19-year-old was among the first Indians in the track and field events at the Hanns-Braun-Stadion, in Olympiapark on Day 1 of the Special Olympics Bharat Summer Games.
Gajendra grew up in Jahanabad, Bihar, in an Army family, surrounded by families engaged in physical toil to make ends meet. His father voluntarily retired almost a decade back, to spend more time with his son. No schools in the area had the capacity or the training to work with kids with his limited cognitive ability and reduced speech abilities. Hence, the family shifted Gajendra to Samarpan Special School in Patna, one associated with the Special Olympics Bharat programme.
Sandeep, a former para-gymnast who has represented India at the Asian Para Games in 2010, is the Area Director for Bihar, and spotted Gajendra very early on — mostly because of how his physique hid his innate shyness and inability to interact socially.
“To start off I asked him to come to my academy every day, and we would just run together, sometimes for an hour, sometimes more,” Sandeep says. “It was just running, but while running, I would talk to him and slowly, he would talk to me.”
The running was replaced by gymnastics, at first, and then seeing a natural strength and proclivity for strength-based sports, Sandeep taught Gajendra the basics of shot-put, but also asked him to do what came naturally to him.
Even now, Gajendra’s technique stands out from everyone else. At the Hanns-Braun-Stadion, in the sunshine, almost all the other athletes, turn and face the mark, built up some momentum by rocking back and forth, before launching the shot into the air. Gajendra turns away from the mark, showing his back to the launching area, cradling his shot in the crook of his neck, right until the last instant, when he turns and swivels with a sudden jerk to put it in play.
And then, on cue, he smiles for the cameras, even flashing a ‘V’ for good measure. The monosyllables may endure, but his shyness evaporates away on the playing field, a fact that everyone is keen to highlight when asked about him.
“I have been excited about coming to Berlin for a few months,” he says. “I’ve wanted to see what everyone has been talking about for these World Games, and so far, I can understand why everyone was talking so much about it.”
Having exceeded his quota of words for strangers, he walks back to his friends in the athletics contingent, and almost immediately indulges in laughter and high-fives, with them.
“Playing sport, just finding out the capabilities of his body has helped him really come out of a shell,” Sandeep says. “He used to be incredibly non-communicative, but now he even coaches the younger children starting gymnastics at the academy, and offers advice to people who come there for fitness. It’s a complete change. That’s what the movement is about actually.”