It's probably fair to say that at the men's high jump competition at the Federation Cup, most spectators had their eyes only on a single athlete. The question for the most part would have been whether Tejaswin Shankar would match the qualifying standard of 2.25m set by the AFI for the Commonwealth Games squad. This was not an unfair observation. Of all the athletes present, only one had ever cleared the qualifying standard in their career.
No one would have thought to spare a glance at Siddharth Yadav, a 25-year old who had never ever even competed in an international competion before, and who had participated in all of five competition since a near career-ending injury to his back four years ago. "Since then I have been told to quit by other athletes and coaches. Even I had doubts on myself," Yadav says.
That he would match Shankar jump-for-jump and eventually become only the third-ever Indian to cross 2.25m, surprised everyone.
Sitting amongst the row of spectators, with a lopsided 'I told you so' grin on his face, was boxer Vikas Krishan. For where nearly everyone had written off the high jumper, Krishan, who had incidentally been named to the Commonwealth Games boxing squad just a couple of days before, had done the exact opposite. "I found out that he (Krishan) had put a bet of Rs. 20,000 on me qualifying for the Commonwealth Games. He was throwing a party for us with it at night," Siddharth says.
Krishan's bet was only the latest time one of the most successful boxers in Indian history had thrown his lot in for Siddharth. Back in 2014, Krishan, then only 22 years old, was already one of the most accomplished pugilists in the country. He was a youth Olympic champion, an Olympian at the London Games, an Asian games gold medallist and only the second Indian boxer to medal at the World Championships.
Siddharth, on the other hand, had only begun his high jumping career. Hailing from Manpur, a village near Pataudi in Haryana, he had played football competitively -- he represented Rajasthan as a goalkeeper at the sub-junior nationals. He had shifted to athletics only in 2011. After winning the junior national title in 2013, he was preparing for a move to the senior category.
All his potential seemed to have ended in nothing when he suffered a serious injury soon after the Federation Cup in 2014. "I dislocated my L5S1 vertebrae during practice. When I was taken to the doctors they, said my career as an athlete was over," he recalls. A long period of rest and rehabilitation followed. What he needed most of all was a shoulder to lean on, and that was provided by Krishan. "No one really supported me then. Only Vikas bhai did."
"Vikas bhai would come and support me all the time. He motivated me by telling me stories of inspiring people who had fought their illnesses. When I didn't want to do my rehabilitation, he kept me going. He told me that I wasn't going to die because of my injury and if anything, I would only be bedridden. And that wasn't what I was destined to do," he says.
Siddharth would later find that Krishan was a cousin along his mother's side, but the boxer's support went beyond a familial one. "We are related through family but I think he is far more close as a friend,"he says. "Even though he was tired, he would come to train my core and give me abdominal workouts after he finished his own boxing training."
Recovery was slow and when Siddharth made his comeback in 2016 at the Inter Railways meet, he only managed to clear a height of 2.08m. When he competed at the Open Nationals later that year, he managed the same height. "It was a joke to be jumping like that but I had no choice," he says.
As he grew steadily stronger, Siddharth's performance steadily improved and in September 2017, he cleared a height of 2.23m -- a new personal best -- at the Open Nationals. Despite that performance, he still remained under-confident in his abilities heading into the Federation Cup. It was left to Krishan to deliver another dose of motivation. "In the weeks before the competition I was out of form. I wasn't even clearing 2.08 or 2.09m. I was really worried who I would do at the Federation Cup. He sat with me for half an hour and kept telling me that I had the ability and I was about to live up to my potential. And that's what happened," he says.
His work done, Krishan left soon after Siddharth finished his competition with the promise that the two would cheer for each other at Gold Coast.
Siddharth, who still doesn't know why the senior boxer gave him so much support, vows to do just that. He also hopes to live up to his mentor's belief in him even if unlike Krishan -- one of the biggest hopes of the Indian boxing contingent -- he isn't seen as a favorite heading to Australia.
"I know he will be competing for a gold. But he told me he wants me to fight. And that's something I guarantee I will do."