Photograph: Charudutt Chitrak
The Winning Way
They did the country proud at the Tokyo Paralympics. Not content to rest on their laurels, they are already gearing up for the 2024 Paris Paralympics. We present to you the para-athletes who have overcome the toughest challenges to keep shining bright.
Officially A Winner!
Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj has played badminton since childhood. The tremendous potential of the IAS officer was discovered at an event where he was invited as a guest. The winner of a silver medal at the Tokyo Paralympics tells us how he became the first-ever IAS officer to script this history
A young boy in a village in Karnataka with a congenital deformity in one leg dared to dream of becoming an engineer. Inspired by his father, he worked hard and graduated as a computer engineer from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka. He went on to pursue his dream of becoming an IAS officer, and, at the time, little did he know that his position would lead him to international acclaim. World no. 2 in the men’s singles in the SL-4 category and silver medalist at the Tokyo Paralympics, Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj, currently serving as the District Magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, played badminton as a hobby until he expressed a desire to participate in a tournament; he had been invited to the inauguration as a guest. He not only got a chance to play, but also defeated state-level players. It set the ball rolling for this para-badminton player, who was recognised and pushed into his sports journey in 2016 by coach Gaurav Khanna of the country’s badminton team.
“When I started, I never thought I’d play professional badminton at the highest level possible.” – Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj
“When I started, I never thought I’d play professional badminton at the highest level possible,” the champion reveals. “I played my first international tournament at the 2016 Asian Para Badminton Championships in Beijing as an unseeded player; I was on the verge of losing when I made a comeback,” With that win, he became the first Indian bureaucrat to win a professional international championship in badminton. Fondly remembering the Asian Championships, he says he went on to become the first unseeded player to win the gold medal in 2016. There began his journey with badminton. “From there, after winning the bronze in the Asian Para Games, I harboured the dream of competing in Tokyo and winning a medal. Life has been kind, destiny has brought me here, and the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I believe in taking one step at a time,” he muses. He earned a berth at the Tokyo Paralympics through a bipartite invitation, becoming the first Indian bureaucrat to represent the country at the games.
Yathiraj says emotions were running high in his mind once that silver medal was his in Tokyo. “For any sportsperson, there is no better feeling than winning a medal in the Olympics or Paralympics. We all train for it, pray for it, are willing to put our life into it. So, when I stood on the podium, when the tricolour started fluttering high, it was a high point in my life, a moment that I will forever cherish.”
“For any sportsperson, there is no better feeling than winning a medal in the Olympics or Paralympics. We all train for it, pray for it, are willing to put our life into it.” – Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj
Considering challenges to be a part of life, Yathiraj believes in pushing through the lows and being happy with the highs. Having a sense of gratitude is important, according to him. “It is important to see that so many people would still be wanting and wishing to be in a place where we are; having this sense of gratitude has also instilled humility in me,” he says. It motivates him to make the most of all that he has; he believes destiny does not give one single person everything. “At the end of the day, excuses do not take a person further in life. Passion and the willingness to put in the effort do.”
Practising every day from 10pm to midnight after all the day’s duties are over, Yathiraj has proven himself to be a shining example many times over. He has been managing his game and administrative duties this way for close to six years now. “If Suhas Yathiraj can become an IAS officer and a Paralympic medalist, the lesson is that you can pursue your passion together with your profession,” the exemplary athlete tells us. He believes that happiness should be the guiding factor for what one pursues in life. Winning and losing are all part of the game; the important thing is to try, even if you fail.
“Playing badminton is a spiritual experience for me, because, when I’m on the court, I’m not bothered about the past or future. I am only concentrating on the next point.” – Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj
Throughout his journey, Yathiraj’s self belief, hard work, discipline and passion for the sport have been his guiding lights. “Playing badminton is a spiritual experience for me, because, when I’m on the court, I’m not bothered about the past or future. I am only concentrating on the next point. This attitude of moving forward, irrespective of what happens in life, has helped me to keep myself motivated to achieve what I aim for,” he says.
For the last year-and-a-half, the officer has been at the forefront of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in his district. He previously served as a district magistrate in the Prayagraj, Agra, Azamgarh, Jaunpur and Sonbhadra districts. While he fulfils his duties, he is not only basking in the glory of his silver, but also eyeing the gold. “I want to enjoy this phase of my life, but a Paralympic silver is not a gold. You can only connect the dots of life when you look at life in hindsight. So, I want to take one step at a time and keep moving forward.” He is all set to prepare for the Asian Games and World Championships next year, but all his hope is set on the big one – the 2024 Paris Paralympics.
“Watch your thoughts for they become your words, watch your words for they become your actions, watch your actions for they become your habits, watch your habits for they become your character and watch your character for it becomes your destiny.” – Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj
It is this hope that is represented in light for Yathiraj. “Hope is a platform on which we should build our desires. In the journey we choose, we need to move forward with a sense of discipline and always have the guiding light of hope. If you have hope, you can do whatever you want in life.”
A thought he wants to leave us with? “Watch your thoughts for they become your words, watch your words for they become your actions, watch your actions for they become your habits, watch your habits for they become your character and watch your character for it becomes your destiny. If you really want something in life and you aspire for it, put in the hard work and pour your heart into it. The cosmos will conspire to give it to you.”
Also read: Playing To Win: Paralympian Pramod Bhagat