In pole position: Jagdish Singh's Olympic dream no longer on ice

Photo courtesy of Jagdish Singh

Until Jagdish Singh boarded the plane to Pyeongchang in the early hours of February 9, he wasn't certain if his Olympic dream would take off. His trip mired in an administrative impasse with officials squabbling over who would accompany him for the Winter Games, the Indian cross-country skier's hopes of a dream debut hung precariously in the balance.

While the rest of the Indian contingent left for South Korea a week earlier, Jagdish camped in New Delhi along with his coach Subedar Nadeem Iqbal, scrambling for last-minute clearances. The possibility of even making it in time for the opening ceremony to complete the two-man Indian contingent on Friday briefly seemed bleak.

"It's been a lot of mental agony, these past few days,"Jagdish told ESPN soon after taking part in the opening ceremony. "I hope I can put all this behind me and compete."

For Jagdish, 26, skiing happened while at his dream job.

Only one among two Indian athletes to qualify for this edition of the Winter Olympics, Jagdish's boyhood dream was to join the Indian army. Reason: He loved the jungle camouflage olive uniform and loathed books. Even before he'd climbed out of his teens, he'd realized his ambition. And skiing followed.

Despite being bred on the mountains, Jagdish's foremost challenge when he first took up the sport seven years ago was fighting freezing temperatures. One of the most gruelling, sapping and least pyrotechnic winter sports which requires competitors to propel themselves on ice through uphill, downhill and undulating terrains, cross-country skiing isn't quite a spectator favourite either. "It's a tough sport to learn and we get just three or four months of ice time a year," says Jagdish, who hails from Chamoli town, tucked in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

"I had never lived in such cold temperatures nor seen so much snow. But now I'm hooked to it."

"The first time I tried it I hated it. Itni thand mein kabhi raha nahi tha, itni barf kabhi dekha nahi tha. Par ab bahut lagaav ho gaya hai (I had never lived in such cold temperatures nor seen so much snow. But now I'm hooked to it)."

Joining the Garhwal regiment of the army when he was just 17 and moving to the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Gulmarg a few years later after being picked to play the sport, Jagdish isn't quite the diligent slogger the sport encourages its participants to be. Iqbal, 34, who was one of India's three athletes at the last edition of the Games in Sochi and who will be travelling this time in the capacity of Jagdish's coach, vouches for it.

"I began training Jagdish while I was still competing. In fact, he used to lag behind me by a couple of minutes. He has a great physique but usually I train alongside him even today so that he's motivated to work hard." Iqbal, the first athlete from Jammu & Kashmir to compete at the Winter Olympics, finished 85th in the men's cross-country Nordic 15 km classic run, among 92 participants in 2014.

In their seemingly clunky ski boots and poles, it's hard not to wonder if skiers feel like intrepid explorers most of the time. It could have something to do with the sport's origin centuries ago in Nordic countries buried under snow as a basic everyday activity, a way of travel for hunting communities and to generally get by in life. It was to be re-packaged as an Olympic discipline for the first time in 1924.

Clutching poles that help translate strength into speed, freestyle skiers push off kicking side-wards on alternate skis, pointed outward in V-shaped patterns, in gliding, skating style. Wearing boots with an ankle cuff and stiff sole to allow for complex movements, skiers push the inside edge of the ski at about a 45-degree angle both outward and backward, pulling on the ski pole to propel the body forward.

Second only to the triumvirate of technique, balance and stamina in skiing, is wax. It's something most skiers can't stop obsessing about. The right wax can go a long way - well, up to the finish line. Glide wax, used on tips and tails of skate skis, keeps it friction-less and impedes ice and dirt build-up. Without the all-important lubricant, hobbling down hills could be slow and laboured and energy expended twice as much. "It's one of the most crucial components of the race," says Jagdish. "There are so many parameters that need to be looked into - temperature, snow texture, distance, before picking a wax. It can make or break a race."

"When I go over a track for the first time I try to lay down an image in my mind and chalk out a route which tells me where the hills lie, at what distance the plains are and what turns I need to take."

It took Jagdish close to three years to master the technique of the sport. A lot of it, he says, is about being able to minimize fatigue while maintaining pace. "At the professional level, every single mile per hour counts. Each part of the body tires and aches - knees, arms and abdomen. But if you're technically sound, you don't feel it that much." Jagdish doesn't have a flattering number of medals to show for his pursuit beyond the three medals from National meets. At his maiden international competition, the 2013 World Ski championships in Cavalese, northern Italy, he finished 61st in the 68-man 10km qualification race with a timing of 31:13.6.

In a sport where India is at best invisible, Jagdish isn't shy of his modest accomplishments. He's treated to the attention of foreign journalists who're often amused to find an Indian athlete line up for a ski race. "Often during international tournaments foreign journalists coming racing towards us and the usual inquiry is how someone from such a hot, tropical country like ours ended up picking this sport. I laugh and respond that we too experience some snowfall in India."

The amusement is not entirely misplaced. Including this edition, India has been represented in only ten Winter Games of the total 23 editions. Medals, of course, given sub-zero winter sport facilities in the country, are beyond reckoning.

Training at the 2.5 km trail at HAWS makes up wintry months for Jagdish while summer is about branching out to sunnier disciplines - volleyball, basketball and roller skating - which aid in building stamina and balance.

"When I go over a track for the first time I try to paint an image in my mind and chalk out a route which tells me where the hills lie, at what distance the plains are and what turns I need to take."

Sport, barring his own discipline, is synonymous with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the mixed martial arts promotion for Jagdish. He keeps track of little else. Of course, unless it has actor and idol Akshay Kumar jumping off rooftops and helicopters.

A solitary pursuit in its very nature, cross-country skiing, Jagdish sums up well, is you up against an endless, frozen landscape. "It's between your will and everything around you that can break it."

Only this time, he's had to wage many a battle to even get there.