The relentless pursuit of Winter Olympic qualification: Why India's only World Cup speedskater might be forced to retire at 26
"So close, yet so far from paradise
I hold, you in my arms, in paradise
Is mine, then you slip away
Like a child at play, and here am I
So close, yet so far from paradise."
Day after day, lap after lap, Indian speedskater Stephen Paul has had only one dream – to see the country’s flag hanging from the rafters at the Winter Olympics.
However, not all dreams come true – at least, not this time.
He missed out. He missed out on securing a berth at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The margin by which he missed out? Only a few milliseconds.
The requirement for 500-meter was 35.7 seconds, and that for 1,000-meter was 1:10.5. And Stephen fell short by just 0.2 seconds and 0.02 seconds in 500 and 1000 meters respectively.
So close and yet, so far.
But, to be honest, even he would not have thought he would come so close when he started out.
A not so smooth beginning
Stephen took to inline skating at a very young age, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he got his first breakthrough. Soon after that, he became one of the best in the country. He would go on to take part in his first World Championships in 2007 and the next year he finished fourth in the Asian Championships.
In 2009 Stephen took part in his second World Championships and this time he finished 38th. The following year, at the Asian Championships, he was a part of the team that came fourth in the team event.
It was all going well until that point, but in October 2010, he suffered an unfortunate injury when he broke his right leg tibia. This forced him out of action for a period of 79 weeks!
“It (the injury period) was very difficult…your leg is the most important in skating, and breaking a bone in any sport is the worst thing that can happen. At that time, I had qualified for one of the biggest championships, the Asian Games. I was the top seed in the country and that’s when I got injured,” Stephen said.
“It was very challenging because my goal was to be one of the bests in the world and the injury hampered it. Personally, as well, I was going through a difficult phase as my dad had passed away in the same year.
“It was hard to even walk, let alone skate. But I went to the USA for rehab and after three months of hard work, I could finally start thinking of getting back to the sport.”
“At first I wasn’t very serious about ice skating. I come from Southern India – in fact, I might just be the first ice skater from Southern India – where they do not have any tracks or anything.
“I had tried it out before but then one of my coach’s friends suggested I take part in the nationals. I said to myself, if I won a gold medal, I would move to ice,” Stephen said.
He ended up bagging one gold and two silver medals at the nationals in 2006.
Years later, he would reach out to Derek Parra, who had won the 1,500-meter gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics, about transitioning to ice skating.
Parra himself had made a switch from roller skating to ice and so he could teach the Indian prodigy using his own experience.
“Although both inline skating and speed skating have certain similarities, it was difficult for me to make the switch. In inline skating, the back is much stiffer, the shoulders move more…but the one thing that helps is that you are not at all afraid of the speed,” Stephen pointed out.
No journey is ever smooth sailing all the way and neither was Stephen’s. There were obstacles all along the way. Lack of recognition and financial problems were always a big part of these obstacles.
What irks Stephen the most is why the media doesn’t give the sport any recognition in the country.
“Virat Kohli gets married and the media goes crazy. You see hundreds of articles on that but even when a Winter Sports athlete qualifies for the World Cup, you won’t see a single article on him. People give so much attention to sports like cricket in this country but an Olympic sport must also be recognised,” he said.
“Even the officials don’t know enough about the sport. There are a few, of course, say, 1 out of 100 are knowledgeable. It’s not like they are doing nothing, they are doing their best. But we need more,” he added.
"An athlete from Colombia got selected for the Olympics and he was properly funded by the government throughout. He has his own coach, a physio, a mental therapist and what not. The government hires everyone. Here, the federation doesn't really care and you have to make do with what you can afford.
“We live apart from our families for so many years, we sacrifice so much. And, yet… I have been in a professional for 12 years, and I have not received a single cheque from the government.
“They want us to win medals but without proper infrastructure and funding it is not possible,” the 26-year-old rued.
Stephen isn’t sure if he is ready to jump on the bandwagon for yet another four years. He seemed to have made his peace with it.
“Right now, I don’t know if I want to do another four years. Committing to do this is a four-year thing, you know. People think you practice for one to one-and-a-half years and you can win medals. It does not work like that,” he said.
“It is definitely possible that I might win a medal at the Olympics. In this sport, 36 people take part in a race and it’s just a matter of seconds that decides the winners. In four-and-a-half years of training, I have shaved eight seconds off my 500 meters time and with more hard work I might just be able to bring it down considerably.
“But the sacrifices I have to make for devoting another four years…I have to make that decision. At this moment, I’m just waiting until the end of February-March, and then I’ll decide,” he sighed.
It’s unfortunate to see such a young athlete even thinking of giving up the thing he loves. He was the country’s first ice skater to qualify for the World Cup in 126 years. Surely, he deserves some recognition and some applause.
What’s appalling is that even after all this, he still loves his country more than anything. And that was obvious from his last statement.
“At the Utah Olympic Oval, there are 32 flags set up and it was a proud moment for me to see the Indian flag flying high amongst them,” Stephen signed off.Published 25 Jan 2018, 02:41 IST