No country for winter sports: The story of India's No. 1 speed skater Vishwaraj Jadeja
Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Whatever you do in life is going to be insignificant, but none the less you have to do it,’ an ideology that India’s number one speed skater Vishwaraj Jadeja holds close to his heart.
Thousands of miles away from his hometown of Ahmedabad, Gujarat in Western India, Jadeja is pursuing the dream of becoming the country’s first Olympic speed-skater. Charting a new road for a sport that has little or no recognition in India’s sporting landscape.
Skating has been embedded on to his family’s blood-line for the past two generations now. His aunty Krishna Jadeja was one of India’s most famous figure and speed skaters. Vishwaraj’s father also runs a skating academy back in Ahmedabad. The acquisition of medals has always been a big motivation for the Jadeja family.
Jadeja started off as a roller skater, which is basically normal roller skating. The difference between the two is massive, the only point of contact between the floor and the athlete is one sharp blade. Hence, the balance and skill-set required as compared to roller skating is much more. The speed also is much higher as the athletes reach 50 km/h on a regular basis.
Speed skating is a part of the Winter Olympics and roller skating is not an Olympic sport.
That being said, the transition from being an amateur to a professional in India has been turbulent to say the least. Jadeja said, “In India, education will always pip everything else. So, like everyone else, even I had to put education first, but that didn’t mean that skating took a back seat. I won the National Gold and cleared 12th science as well. “
The first big decision for several adults in India is either to be an Engineer or a doctor, everything other field cannot be counted in the professional realm. When Jadeja had to make this decision, his choice was obvious, Skating!
“My actual dream was never to be an engineer, but to prove that I am the best at skating. The only way to do that was to switch to ice skating and represent India at the Olympics”. However, the road less travelled would also bring up its own challenges.
Moving to Netherlands, due to lack of Infrastructure in India
With no infrastructure whatsoever for speed skating in the country, Jadeja would have to accumulate the finances to move to the Netherlands. “For me to make it to the Olympics, I needed to move to a country, which gave god-like status to the sport. Ice Skating to Netherlands is what cricket is to India. Everyone called me crazy, but to put India on the map, the decision as obvious.”
The 29-year old is currently training in Utrecht, Netherlands. Last year, saw him better India’s and his best timing twice. In total, Jadeja has broken the national record 65 times, across various distances (from 500m to 10000m).
Since moving to Netherlands, Jadeja has been getting better every year. In 2009, he was timing 8:04.9 in the 5000m, now he has cut 35 seconds off that timing. In the shorter form or the 100m event, he continues to improve as his timing has gone from 11.11 seconds to 10.72 seconds.
Acquisition of Finances
Just a few seconds of the Olympic qualification mark, the progress is gradual, but evident. He said, “Ice skaters generally need close to 10 years to develop under ideal conditions. But, we have just six years to develop into Olympic level skater. Up for the challenge though!”
Acquisition of finances has been a problem for Jadeja, who is currently staying and training full-time in the Netherlands. The Ice Skating Association of India (ISAI) has provided little or no assistance to him.
They account for just 1% of the total finances Jadeja has required to fund his tenure abroad.
The blame can’t solely be put on the ISAI as the money is not being allotted from the upper echelons of the hierarchy in the first place.
Jadeja said,” I am lucky to have some of the best kind of human beings around me. Ironically I have gotten more support from people/administration of The Netherlands then India .And without the support of the people around me here none this would have been possible. Or I would not get so far.”
He harped on that in India, it’s a given that you have to transition from roller skating to ice skating, which is a completely different sport.
Jadeja added, “Roller Skating and Long Track Ice skating seem the same, but are completely different. The transition was harder than I expected. But since then I have broken 65 National Records on the Ice. And you have to be fit mentally and physically equally to be able to sport the Olympic Level, which takes time.”
India’s sole consistent representative at the Winter Olympics, Shiva Keshavan has come out in support of the country’s number one ice-skater. Keshavan said.”It’s admirable that he (Jadeja) has taken the step of moving abroad and is travelling on the road less travelled. I’m sure he is going to represent India at the Olympics as well.”
What lies ahead?
The training regime is gruelling. Jadeja trains 11 months a year, seven days a week and five hours a day. During the summer, land training includes cycling 5000 km from May to mid September. The winter training includes skating on ice every day, with tournaments every weekend.
He has participated in almost 100 different speed skating races in Europe.
Jadeja said, “there is no infrastructure in India, I do miss my family very often. But, they have been supportive in my efforts, i’m one lucky man. We have to understand that winter sports is plagued with corruption as Keshavan said in his interview. But, Indian winter athletes as a community stick together and hope for the best.”
Winter sports athletes such as Vishwaraj Jadeja are paving the way for future Indian winter sports athletes to bask in the glow of legitimacy. With Shiva Keshavan’s performances for India getting better every day, Indian winter sports seems to be in safe hands, thanks to the sacrifices of a few individuals.