On a Sunday evening in May, ahead of the javelin throw event at the Indian Grand Prix in Patiala, few eyes would have been on Davinder Singh. Not many might have predicted that Singh would qualify for the London World Championships, as he did, with a throw of 84.57m. His mark is the seventh best in the world this season, and the second best ever by an Indian, only behind Neeraj Chopra's national record of 86.48m recorded last year.
But while Chopra, the defending youth world champion, is seen as amongst the brightest prospects in Indian athletics, Singh is relatively unknown to all but the most devoted followers of the sport in India. The 29-year old from Chak Shakur village in Punjab's Jalandhar district isn't even currently a part of the national camp.
Singh's was a mark recorded even as he wore borrowed throwing shoes because his own cleats were coming apart from the seams. In an attempt to save some money (the shoes are sold at a significant markup by the few dealers who stock the product in India), Singh had asked a friend in England to send him a pair of the specialized equipment. Unfortunately, the shipment had been held up at customs. Singh had completed his first three throws in his old shoes, sending the carbon fibre spear in the modest 77m range before eventually asking a colleague for a favour.
The javelin throw is an event that requires athletes to accelerate as hard as possible before bracing a foot just before the foul line. It's a technique known as a 'block' that transfers momentum to the spear. In his fraying shoes with spikes worn down to the nub and skin that had recently been patched up by a Patiala cobbler, this was a particularly risky attempt. "Dar dar ke phenk raha tha (I was scared while attempting the throw)," he says.
Singh would know, he had paid the penalty before.
Back in 2010, he was in line to compete at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games, when he slipped in his attempt at a block during a practice session. Singh fractured his throwing elbow and was ruled out of action for nearly a year. "Man tut gaya tha (I was heartbroken)," he remembers. His return, since then, has been slow. Apart from a few results - a gold at a Asian GP in 2015 and another at the Federation Cup, that same year - there were no stand out performances.
While he failed to qualify for the Olympics, his throw of 80.21m at the Indian Grand Prix in Bangalore, the final qualifying tournament for Rio last year, hinted at his potential. "I was disappointed at missing out on the Olympics, but I felt I would still prove myself," he says.
It was a belief that was tested as he was left out of the national camp. He had been included at first, but says he had differences over the coaching program charted by Australian coach Garry Calvert. "I have a lot of respect for Calvert sir but his training didn't suit me. His workouts were not intense enough," explains Singh. "Coach Calvert's method will work for Neeraj because he still has many years to develop. I am almost 30. I have to push myself a lot harder."
Being excluded meant that Singh wouldn't benefit from the hostel facilities and diet provided to campers by the Sports Authority of India at Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala. It was a serious burden that his Rs. 40,000 a month salary as an Army Naib Subedar wouldn't come close to covering. "Training as an athlete is not cheap. I have to stay outside and try to save costs by sharing a room with four other athletes. I put all my salary in my training but it still isn't enough. My father is a small farmer but he helps out where he can," he says. He also raises funds by coaching junior athletes. "One of my trainee's father gave me one lakh rupees to help me to train ahead of the Indian Grand Prix."
Singh, however, believes that the adversity has helped him improve as an athlete. "When I am sacrificing as much as I am, I make every moment I train count. I've learned more about my training than I did in all the previous years when I was in the camp," he says.
Singh says he has switched up his training program entirely. "I used to train purely for strength in the past. A lot of that was useless strength. But now I've worked on my core strength. I used to be 107kg but I'm training for speed now and I've lost nearly 20kg," says the 5'10 athlete. Over the last year, while Singh will periodically discuss technical details with former CWG bronze medalist Kashinath Naik, he is, for the most part, self-coached.
Now that he has qualified for the World Championships, Singh might be expected to feel vindicated, but he isn't done yet. He has posted a number of videos on Youtube of practice sessions where he records throws over 86m. He now wants to post those numbers in competition.
"I've got another Indian Grand Prix coming up in another week," he says. He's hoping his shoes clear customs and arrive in India by then. "Otherwise I'll just pay the extra cost as get them from one of the dealers. Regardless of the expense, I'll have to get it. I'll look to break the national record there."
*This article was originally posted in May 2017, after Davinder had qualified for the World Championships. He will be in action in the Javelin throw final on August 13, 12:45 AM IST.