Basketball as a sport in India has never quite got the recognition it deserves, Wheelchair Basketball even more so. Though the sport in wheelchair enjoys a bit of popularity amongst the veterans of armed forces, it has never made it to mainstream news.
The Bridge, on Friday, caught up with one of India’s star Wheelchair hoopster – Geeta Chouhan for a chat:
“Equal respect feels good. Society feels that disabled people won’t be able to achieve anything in life, they should stay at home; this mentality needs to change. If I can achieve so much being disabled, each and every person can,” asserted Geeta with oozing confidence right at the start of the conversation.
The way she spoke revealed a lot about the sheer grit and determination which helped her scale great heights despite of her lifelong disability.
Born in a lower middle class family, Geeta lived a normal life before she was affected with polio when she was six years old. An injection for the deadly disease turned her life upside down and she lost mobility in both her legs before years of treatment helped her get control over one leg while managing other with a crutch.
She endured a tough time in school where her peers refused to it besides her fearing her disability to be contagious. Things were not great for her at home either as her father refused to let her study after she cleared class 10th board exams.
Geeta though refused to get bogged down by this as she completed her education while working odd jobs and through some support from her mother. While on a job hunt, she was once rejected from 28 places in a week due to her disability. She somehow managed to secure a job at a bank but her father refused to let her work and threatened to send her back to their village. This forced Geeta to leave her home and settle elsewhere in Mumbai.
This was one of the darkest phase of her life and she tried to commit suicide unable to cope up with life alone. But it was not to be as she survived and then decided to take control of her life. She has since gone on to play basketball for her state as well as the country.
When asked about her introduction to wheelchair basketball, she credited her friend Ravi and said, “I started playing basketball in 2017 when my friend told me about a new wheelchair basketball team being recruited for Mumbai. I had not played any sport as a child and so this was a new experience for me”.
“I was doubtful if I would be able to play well or not. We started playing at a ground in Haji Ali with just four to five players. None of us were financially strong but we continued playing the game without quality equipment and wheelchairs just because of our love for the sport,” she added.
Geeta and the Maharashtra team played their first national championships the same year in Hyderabad and finished at the fourth spot.
“We didn’t win our first national championship but it was a great experience and it gave us the motivation that we could play at that level,” she said.
The next national championship in 2018 though had much better memories for Geeta and the team as they overcome a strong Tamil Nadu team to be crowned champions.
“In the 2018 final, I fell down from my wheelchair and was unconscious for about a minute. But soon I gained consciousness and started playing. Nobody thought we will win at the end of the third quarter, but I believed and scored well in the fourth quarter to top score in the match and win the championship,” Geeta explained with pride.
Besides basketball, Geeta is also a talented wheelchair tennis player. When enquired about the same she said, “I started playing tennis in December 2017 when they invited me to a wheelchair tennis camp being organised in Mumbai.”
She has represented Maharashtra in tennis too, winning the doubles title in the 2018 National Wheelchair Tennis Open at Chennai. The win though came amidst a personal tragedy which she was not aware of.
“I was playing in doubles final of 2018 Wheelchair Tennis Open when my father passed away. My family didn’t inform me about his death as they felt I won’t be able to concentrate during the match. It was only when I returned home with the medal, I came to know that my father is no more,” she said almost breaking down.
Geeta is also an entrepreneur who runs a garment business which she started after her suicide attempt in 2016.
“The business helped me get on with my life, but to be honest the business currently is suffering some big losses due to the pandemic situation in the country and it really hurts,” explained Geeta.
Apart from the business her daily training and practice also took a big hit during the nationwide lockdown.
“We had a lot of issues. I couldn’t train much at home due to the lack of space to train. But, I continued to do what I could. I also recently started going out on the wheelchair to get a feel of it and we are slowly getting back to the routine,” she said.
“We had online training sessions with our coaches and some foreign coaches during the latter part of the lockdown. We also had sessions so that we don’t fall into depression,” she added.
When asked about the support and incentives from the Government, Geeta didn’t hold back her displeasure and bluntly said, “There has been no support from the government whatsoever – neither from the state nor from the centre. We have to look out for our own sponsorships which is a lot difficult.”
“Even our association doesn’t support us. We can play as a player in the team but there has been not much incentive financially. It’s a lot to take, we can’t train daily due to this. We need to cover our travelling costs, training costs all by ourselves. We even have jobs and we always have to choose between the job and the training, plus nobody will give you leaves to train every day, which makes it difficult,” Geeta lamented.
Despite all the hardships in life Geeta has managed to rise above everything. She did not let the disability define her life and hopes that everyone gets an equal opportunity in life to prove themselves regardless of any disability.
“We don’t want any sympathy. All we disabled people ask for is an equal opportunity, some support and empathy. I had to fight and struggle a lot to reach this position and I hope no one else ever has to,” she signed off.