Early on in the conversation, Vishwaraj Jadeja declared, “I'm at that stage in my journey where I feel numbers really are insignificant as long as you've not made it to the endpoint, to the goal, and the goal is to represent India at the Winter Olympics.”
Numbers may not matter to him, but his life has been a series of them – Jadeja himself has been skating since he was three years old. “I remember walking and skating at the same time, so that was how it was.”
He grew up in Ahmedabad, looking at grainy photographs of his father and his aunt, both national roller-skating champions, from the 70s-80s roller-skating era – smiling in skating rinks with disco balls, wearing their bell-bottoms, big hair and skates. His grandfather played hockey at the university level and he remembers his house running out of space from his aunt’s medals and Dad’s trophies.
When he decided to take up the sport, his family was hardly surprised. In fact, they were confident that he would be able to make it to state championships and the Nationals in no time. But then what? It had all been done before. As a third generation athlete, he needed to up the ante. “And I was like, okay then Olympics?”
But roller skating was never an Olympic sport.
Following the Winter Olympics journey of Shiva Keshavan, the first Indian to compete in luge and a six-time Olympian, Jadeja began his research in earnest. “And then I found that ice skating is something close to roller skating. But it actually is not. It’s a completely different sport. Completely different.”
In 45°C weather in Ahmedabad, he announced to his family that he wanted to go to the Winter Olympics. To ice skate. And off he went with a small student loan to The Netherlands.
Thirty-six now, he has had two homes for the last 13-14 years – Ahmedabad where he grew up and The Netherlands where he’s been ice-skating. Two homes. One dream – the Olympics.
Having been less than half a second away from the Olympic time, he was rearing to have a go at three World Cup events to qualify. But he could only do one. “The pandemic. Then my visa did not come on time … Challenges after challenges.
“And I think that's when you really realize when you have the Indian passport in your hand, compared to all your colleagues who are European or American… The world reminds you that you're from India. ‘Know your place in the food chain, man.’
“Obviously the administration can't do anything about it because no matter how much we bang our chest in India, if you can't get your athlete who is actually a potential, probable Olympian, to his potential events… But it doesn't matter. I don't want to get too emotional and negative about it. It did not happen, and here we are.
“And obviously, the financial struggles – funds were never released on time or potential sponsors who say yes one day and then don't show up the next. So it was like a public private partnership also, where it was a collective failure in trying to support the athlete. For winter sports, at least, this has been something which I've seen constantly last so many years of my being an athlete at a certain stage.”
Around the same time, he found out that his coach, the closest he has to family in The Netherlands was battling with cancer. His grandfather, whose Olympian dream he carries forward, passed away.
For Jadeja, everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong, twice over. “I mean I’m not complaining about it. It has only made me stronger, more motivated – yaar ab to aa hi jao aap.”
But he is the picture of good sportsmanship when he laughs it off. “When all these things happen, I’m like now I should stop? Why should I stop now? What else could go wrong? So the attitude at some point changed from ‘this will go wrong, that will go wrong’ to ‘okay, now what else can go wrong?’”
But after the Olympics debacle, he needed to fall in love with the sport again. “Every time if I have setbacks in the elite sports sphere, the only way I know how to get out of these dark holes is to go out there to push myself to the limit or to as far as I can out there.”
He became the first speed skating Indian athlete to skate 100 km on the Frozen Sea in Sweden as part of the Sea Ice Classic, Lulea Tour.
“I knew I really have to do this. So I thought, alright, let’s do 100 and see what happens. And then when I started, it was thrilling.”
He did it in 4 hours 53 minutes. What does that feel like? Out alone on natural ice for 100 km?
“You cannot stop. You have to keep going and I had to fall in love with the sport again, and find myself, and all of those things. It was fun. I think I could have done it faster but because it was my first time, I was also slightly afraid because what if I kill myself? If I go too hard or too fast… But human beings are capable of so much more than we can think or imagine, possibly.”
“And you’re with yourself, and you’re questioning everything you’ve done so far in your life basically. And you need to have the courage to face it.
“I have also seen a lot of people’s journeys also end for whatever reasons. And I did not want to be the guy who almost made it because ‘almost’ does not matter – it’s insignificant, you know?
“So, I kind of just ended up doing the first half hating myself for what I’m doing, and the second half being, ‘I’m going to fix everything. I’m going to get this done.’”
Where does it come from, this resilience to work towards a goal that’s constantly four years away? “This year I improved like 4 seconds on my 1500-metre time. I finished on the podium on a 60-round marathon in Netherlands and another for a club race on an outdoor track. If I wasn’t improving, I would stop. I’m going to take one year at a time, you know? You don’t take all the four years, you take one year at a time, look at it as if it’s the last one and treat it also like that.”
Jadeja is quite clearly a man with several plans and astonishing numbers to his credit. With one dream, but it’s one which makes it all count.