At 7.30 am on Thursday morning all eyes in the Poojary household in Vanse, a tiny village near Kundapur in Karnataka, were glued to the television.
One of their own, Gururaja Poojary, was taking part in the men's 56-kg weightlifting competition in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. After failing to lift the weight of 138 kg in his first two attempts, it appeared as if Gururaja's medal prospects were slipping away
The 25-year old weightlifter, however, was the very picture of strength in his final attempt to take his final tally to 249 kg and clinch the silver medal.
This medal in the Gold Coast is not only Gururaja’s first taste of success on the international stage right on his debut, but is also the product of a journey where he overcame poverty and personal setbacks to reach where he is.
But for his family members, it came as no surprise.
He comes from a sporting family – all five of his brothers dabbled in Kabaddi and were athletes. "But it was Gururaj who was always going to achieve his dream," says Manohar Poojary, Gururaja's elder brother.
Gururaja's father, Mahabala Poojary, is a goods-truck driver, who struggled to make ends meet to take care of his six sons. “Poverty is something we have lived in all our life. If we were a little bit well-off financially or received the necessary support and encouragement, maybe all of my sons could have made our country proud," says Mahabala, speaking after his son's success in Australia.
But due to poverty and unforeseen circumstances at home, Gururaja's older brothers – Mohan, Manohar, Udaya and Rajendra – had to drop out of school and, with that, from sports. Only Gururaja and his youngest brother, Rajesh, completed their studies amongst the six sons.
His mother, Padhu Poojarthi, is a homemaker.
Left to Right: Rajesh, Manohar, Mahabala (Gururaja's father), Padhu Poojarthi (his mother), Mohan, Ravirajand Uday Poojary
But his family was not willing to let Gururaja tread the same path. "Our father worked extra hard to ensure that Gururaja strove to achieve his dream. Seeing my father's and brother's struggles, even we chipped-in, taking on extra work to help in whatever way we could. Today, his victory is as much our victory," says Manohar.
While studying at Sri Dharmastala Manjunatheshwara (SDM) College in Ujire, in Dakshina Kannada, Gururaja was looking for a wrestling coach rather than a weightlifting one. This was around the time Sushil Kumar had won his first Olympic medal in wrestling in 2008. While his search for a wrestling coach proved to be fruitless, he met powerlifters at the local gym and was soon representing his college in powerlifting.
Gururaj was making his debut at the Commonwealth Games.
It was here he met his coach Rajendra Prasad, who gave him his first lessons in weightlifting."I still remember, in 2011, Gururaja was a young boy who had just joined a graduation course. He was a Kabaddi player and a wrestler, and did not have any idea about powerlifting. We selected him for the club and, seeing his talent, guided him in powerlifting," says Rajendra Prasad, who works as a coach at the SDM Sports Club.
He added that Gururaja was proficient at the University level and even broke a record set by him in 1999 by lifting 193 kg (total in snatch and knee jerk) in 2012. He improved to 243 kg in 2015, a record which still stands to this day.
Medals won by Gururaja in his career
It was only in 2013 that he became a national-level athlete and in 2014, after a gold medal at the national-level, he started becoming a serious contender for a Commonwealth Games berth.
With his superlative rise in the sport, Gururaja also enrolled in the Indian Air Force three years ago, after which the Air Force took care of all the training expenses. "Until then, it was the family, college-mates and generous philanthropists who gave wings to his dream, hoping he would bring glory to the region," says Manohar.
By the time the financial strain on his family was eased, 25-year-old Gururaja was ready to take on the world stage.
With the win in Australia, he has now vaulted straight into the national limelight and Pramod Madhwaraj, Karnataka Minister for Youth, Fisheries and Sport, who also hails from Udupi, said that Gururaja is likely to get a government job as a group-B officer and also a cash prize for his achievements.
When TNM caught up with Gururaja, he was, understandably, elated. "I am very happy that I have represented India in the Commonwealth Games and won the first silver medal for India (this year). This is my first Commonwealth Games and I want to thank my parents, family, my weightlifting coach Rajendra Prasad, SDM institution and everyone from my village who supported me," he says.
His family members, who were nervously watching from home, was over the moon. Although his mother says she doesn't quite understand the world of sport, she adds she is overwhelmed by the media visits.
But Gururaja's family was quick to add that the journey is still not over. “We want him to make our country proud. Our biggest dream is that he participates and wins in the Olympics,” says Mahabala.
There is still some way to go before Gururaja can qualify for the Olympics. His final tally of 249 kgs will have to improve closer to 300 kgs. But throughout his journey, he has broken barriers and after his latest success in Australia, Gururaja will no doubt be willing to go the mile to chase his Olympic dream.
With inputs provided by www.storyInfinity.com (Subs and Scribes Media Ventures LLP)