It is a well-established fact that India is a cricket-crazy nation. The amount of interest, passion and money that cricket generates surpasses all other sports in the country.
But even in a land that regards its cricketers as Gods, there are those that step out of the 22 yards and take up something that is completely new.
Jagdish Singh is one such athlete; his sport? Cross-country skiing.
Not only has Jagdish been able to become a professional in a fairly unknown sport, but he has also managed to do something that very few others from the country have been able to do – qualify for the Winter Olympics.
Indeed, so thin is India’s Winter Olympics contingent for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, that the only Indian athlete other than Jadish to have qualified for the mega event is none other than veteran luger Shiva Keshavan.
Now a veteran of winter sports in India, Keshavan has already made the record of making it to the second highest number of Olympics for an Indian – six. The only athlete other than him to have achieved this feat is Indian tennis legend, Leander Paes.
From the willow to the snow
It was only after he joined the Army that Jagdish turned his attention from cricket to skiing.
“People like us only came to know about these sports after we joined the Army. Before that, sports only meant cricket for me,” said Jagdish. “I used to be a cricket freak back in school, but after joining the army, I fell in love with skiing.”
The seemingly jovial 26-year-old had, like his father, joined the Army when he was just 17, after clearing his class 10 exams.
“I never really had much interest in studies back then. All I wanted to do were stunts,” he says. It was the sight of the army uniform that finally inspired him to join the forces at such a young age.
When ‘winter’ finally came
Making it to the Army, however, was just the beginning. Being posted in the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS), Jagdish, who hails from Chamoli, Uttarakhand, found it extremely difficult to adjust to the temperatures.
The hardships of an army lifestyle in a place as cold as Gulmarg, Kashmir, even drove Jagdish to ponder whether he should quit.
“It was so cold! On certain nights the temperatures even went down to minus 20 degrees,” recalled Jagdish. “I often used to ask myself, why I am doing this. I even contemplated leaving all this and going back home.”
When asked how he dealt with these hard times, Jagdish gave a reply that typified the Army-man within him: “I’m in the Army. That’s motivation enough. It is my job to keep fighting.”
Once he got past that initial hurdle, Jagdish actually started enjoying skiing – so much so, that he even started to like the sport more than cricket. It took him around four years of rigorous training get to the level where he could compete against the top skiers from around India and the world.
Training with the Army was obviously not an easy ordeal. Jagdish had to train for almost 10-11 hours every day, a routine that he still follows. Of course, the fact that he is on the payroll of the Army has helped him put all his time into his training, in order to improve himself in the sport.
Jagdish starts his training at 8 am, on winter mornings, skiing on the HAWS slopes till around noon. However, his preparation for training starts much earlier in the day.
“We start training from 8 am, but the daily preparation for the whole process begins much earlier in the day,” says Jagdish. “I have to take good care of my gear, wax the skis properly, and then set off for training. That takes some time.”
Snowballing out of proportion?
Unlike other winter sports athletes in India who have to look out for a regular source of income while following their passion for the sport, Jagdish can concentrate on just getting better at what he does.
However, the obvious problem that Jagdish faces, much like other winter athletes in the country, is that of not getting snow throughout the year. In Gulmarg, winter athletes get to train for around three to four months a year while, ideally, top skiers from around the world get to train almost double that time.
A more recent problem that the skier has faced is the lack of snow during the season as well, something that has even led to the International Skiing Race in Auli, a competition that was supposed to serve as a qualifier for the Winter Games last month, being postponed.
Even Gulmarg, which generally gets a decent amount of snow every year, got very little this time around.
“Normally we get a lot of snow during the winter. But this year, it’s hardly two feet in Gulmarg,” said Jagdish. “That has obviously had some effect on our training.”
In such scenarios, however, the skiers at HAWS have to make do with regular summer training, like hitting the gym, going for long runs, and roller skating.
Of foreign sojourns and the Olympic dream
After winning the bronze medal in the 2014 National Championships, Jagdish got opportunities to showcase his talent on the international level. The first time that the skier from Uttarakhand got a chance to compete against international athletes was at the 2013 World Championships in Italy, where he came in 62nd out of almost 100 participants.
He followed that up with a good showing in Japan and Finland last year, on the basis of which, he booked his spot in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang.
“Olympics is the biggest event in the world. I wanted the country to know me, and the only way of doing that was if I made it to the Olympics,” he said. “That is what kept driving me during qualification.”
On being asked what qualifying for the Winter Games meant, Jagdish was at a loss for words, before shyly retorting, “I am very happy of course, but it’s more than that. How can I explain this? It’s the Olympics! You tell me how big this is (chuckles).”
Troubles at home
Despite qualifying for the Olympics, Jagdish’s travel plans to South Korea were in jeopardy, though he himself had a very little part to play in it.
Caught in a wrangle between the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI), the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Army, Jadish actually found himself in a situation where he may not have even travelled to PyeongChang.
The main issue arose when the WGFI failed to name any of the coaches that the Army had recommended to travel with Jagdish to the Olympics. Instead, the federation had nominated the names of President Jodh Singh Dhillon and General Secretary Roshan Lal Thakur.
Miffed with WGFI’s decision to pick officials over coaches, the Army had even threatened to pull Jagdish out of the Indian contingent.
However, the IOA swiftly stepped in, as it reportedly removed the two officials from the roster, and named Subedar Nadeem Iqbar, who had taken part in the 2014 Sochi Games, as Jagdish’s coach.
“We shouldn’t send people who will bring the country to shame at such big events abroad,” Jagdish said when asked about the issue. “Roshan Lal ji has been running the winter games federation for so many years now, he will be able to tell you better why none of my coaches were selected initially.”
With the issue resolved, Jagdish and Nadeem took off for South Korea on February 7, just two days ahead of the Opening ceremony of the Winter Games.
While that would normally be a cause for some concern with regards to adjusting to the conditions, Jagdish’s case is a bit different. He is set to take part in the 15km freestyle cross-country event, which gets underway on February 16.
“I still have a week to acclimatize myself in Korea, so this delay shouldn’t be a problem.”
An Army man through and through
Despite all these hardships, Jagdish has pushed his way through to the Olympics and is now set to be one half of India’s contingent in the 2018 Winter Games.
However, he has had one constant throughout his journey in winter sports – the Army.
It was after joining the Army that he discovered his love for skiing, it was the Army that provided him with the opportunity to hone his talent, and when his travel to the Olympics was in doubt, it was the Army that stepped in and forced the IOA to take action.
“From the start to the end, all my training has been taken care of by the army,” said Jagdish. “Right from training, lodging, going to tournaments, everything is taken care of by the army, for us.
“Neither the federation nor the government has done much to help the winter sports athletes,” he continued.
Although he refused to set targets in his mind, Jagdish seemed intent on improving his timings.
For now, this 26-year-old athlete just wants to keep skiing. “Jab tak hai jaan (as long as I am alive),” he signs off, like a true Armyman.