They are two of only 15 people living in Manitoba with achondroplasia — a genetic disorder of bone growth that causes dwarfism.
They share the same initials, “VB” and stand 4-foot-2 and 4-foot-4, respectively. But ask world-class athlete Vivek Bhagria if his lifelong love for sport is inspired by his dad, Vikram, and his deadpan reply brings their comparison to an abrupt halt.
“No,” quips Bhagria, who’s currently studying Business Administration at Red River College. “I got into [sports] myself. He’s too lazy.”
His pop might not share his passion for athletics, but it was his kind words of support, when Bhagria was just four years old, that helped him find the courage to chase his dream.
“I was trying to join a soccer team,” recalls Bhagria of his first experience with organized sport. “Little kids were looking at me. I went crying to my dad. I talked to [him] about it and he said, ‘They’re just kids, they don’t know anything.’”
The message hit home for young Bhagria and the results speak volumes about how it fueled his ambition. From those early days in his St. Vital neighbourhood, he’s gone on to be a provincial champion athlete in high school and a podium regular at the 2013 World Dwarf Games (he won a silver in floor hockey and a bronze in volleyball) and the 2015 National Games, held this past August in St. Louis, Mo., where his medal tally rose to four: silver in basketball and soccer; bronze in volleyball and badminton.
He even rubbed elbows with a celebrity: Zach Roloff from TLC’s Little People, Big World recruited Bhagria to be on his basketball team after seeing his skills on Facebook.
Through it all, Bhagria has navigated doubters and bullies, and rose to the challenge of a playing field that almost always consisted of athletes significantly taller, faster or stronger than he. Like any good student of the game, he says he learned to play to his strengths — his intense concentration, and laser-like accuracy in shooting and passing — and before long he says he was just another player on the team, noticed for his talent, not his stature.
It is the same now as it was then. The soft spoken 20-year-old’s quiet confidence still comes from knowing someone just like him will always have his back. “I look up to my dad,” he says. “I know I have someone that’s my size. I always have my dad on my side, there to support me.”
He hopes to have that same impact on other little people, so he’s using his success on the playing field to help fight back against the bullying that he and many others with dwarfism continue to endure.
Bhagria is a member of the Lil’ All-Stars basketball team, who travel across Canada showcasing their skills on the court and delivering an anti-bullying message.
As for the daily instances of bullying he sometimes has to endure — an odd look, a rude remark — Bhagria says the best counter to the offense is to talk to the person, one-on-one.
“I’ll just have a talk with them [and tell them] ‘You’re an adult, have more respect for others,’” he says. “Once someone [like me] makes a move, everyone will make that same move to stop bullying. There needs to be that person that helps.”
Bhagria says he’s enjoying his first year at RRC and he’s keeping his career options open. On the one hand, the athlete in him foresees a career as an agent, working with sports superstars, or possibly opening his own sports store.
On the other hand, he’s interested in human resources and marketing. When he’s not hard at work in class, Bhagria is in the gym training in preparation for his next big moment to show the world what he’s capable of: the 2017 World Dwarf Games in Guelph, Ont.
Whatever path life takes him on, he will continue to challenge misconceptions about what little people can do.
“We are not different,” says Bhagria. “We have the same heart as you. Stop bullying. We can do anything normal people can do, we just find our own ways. We just do [things] in a different way.”