Speaking to Vishwaraj Jadeja, one gets a sense of boundless enthusiasm and passion for his sport. His passion is palpable and his aim is clear. His dream is to participate in the Winter Olympics.
Growing up in Ahmedabad, Vishwaraj’s earliest memories were of roller skating. This was natural, since both his aunt and father were accomplished roller skaters themselves. Vishwaraj distinguished himself early on, participating in the 1999 Amateur National Championships at the age of 14. Three state championships and a national gold later, he was drafted into the Indian national team.
Vishwaraj went on to represent India in the Asian Inline Hockey Championships and inline speed skating world championships, and for his services received the Sardar Patel Award for Excellence from the Gujarat government. It might have been enough for most, but Vishwaraj felt the call of the “Rings”, as he calls them – the Olympic rings. However, a lack of funding, along with roller skating not making it to the Olympics proved to be big setbacks for him and by 2008, he was convinced that he needed to look beyond roller skating.
“Eventually, as roller skating did not make it to the Olympics, as an athlete you have to do something to make your dreams come true. So I moved to Europe, I moved there and looked for a coach to achieve this goal,” he said.
He switched to ice skating, a sport he thought closest to roller skating and inline skating. Having decided on long track speed skating, there was but one place to go – the Netherlands. “It’s very simple,” Vishwaraj explains. “You want to play cricket, go to India. I’ve met Dutch cricketers who wants to play in India. Similarly, if you want to learn the sport I’m learning, you have to come to Holland. Because of the sports culture, the infrastructure, the coaches, the competitions… I could go on and on.”
His search for a coach led him to Wim Nieuwenhuizen, who Vishwaraj fondly refers to as the ‘Champion Maker,’ for his illustrious trainees and comprehensive training programme. Each time Vishwaraj speaks of his coach, he is full of gratitude and admiration. He recalls his first conversation with Nieuwenhuizen over the phone. “Coach said, ‘If you are crazy enough to come from India to learn long track ice speed skating here, then I’m crazy enough to coach you.’”
Despite not having mastered the techniques of ice skating, Vishwaraj didn’t take too long to step onto his first podium at an amateur race in Copenhagen in 2008. Looking back, he says he “made a fool of himself” but the support he received from the crowd more than made up for it.
Skating on the ice in the Netherlands is often a bitterly cold experience for a person used to tropical climates but Vishwaraj didn’t take much time to adapt. The 31-year-old is continually spurred on by the competition he faces even in the lower divisions, allowing him to improve every day.
“This,” he says, ”is a sign of how good their infrastructure is and how developed their system is. It is why I’m here. Even when skating in a lower division, there is enough competition to help you improve you every day.”
Despite the hardships he has faced, Vishwaraj maintains a cheerful attitude. He shares the motivation that keeps him ticking through hard times. “As soon I put on that India Team speed suit, everything is gone. You think, alright, this is where I belong. As soon as I step on that ice track, I only imagine myself at the Olympics.”
“Every time there is any setback, small or big, all I think about is how much fun it is to be on the ice track, how grateful I am to represent India, and to have what I have and do what I do. To go where I want to go. In my head, I imagine myself walking in the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics. That is just what is going through my head every day,” Vishwaraj, who soon travels to Sapporo in Japan to represent India at the Asian Winter Games in a long track speed skating event, concludes.