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Meet Murlikant Petkar, the pioneering athlete who won India's first Paralympic gold

Murlikant Petkar, the soldier turned athlete not only defied the odds but also paved the way for a brighter future for Paralympic sports in India.

Meet Murlikant Petkar, the pioneering athlete who won Indias first Paralympic gold

Murlikant Petkar set a world record of 37.33 seconds in the 50m freestyle swimming event at the 1972 Paralympic Games. (FILE PHOTO: paralympic.org)


The Bridge Desk

Updated: 15 Jun 2024 11:27 AM GMT

Life throws unique challenges onto people, some greater than others. For Murlikant Petkar, the challenge came from a Pakistani battlefield in the year 1965.

A young aspiring soldier was suddenly left paraplegic. But that wasn’t the end of his story; it was merely the first chapter in the rise of India’s first Paralympic gold medallist.

In 1972, at the Heidelberg Paralympics, Germany, Murlikant wrote his name in sporting history as he clinched the nation’s first-ever Paralympic gold medal in the 50m freestyle swimming event, setting a world record of 37.33 seconds.

His skills extended beyond swimming, as not only did he participate in various sports, like slalom, shot put, javelin, and precision javelin throw, but he also reached the finals in all these sports.

Overcoming hardships

Born in 1944 in Sangli, Maharashtra, Petkar's life took a dramatic turn during India's 1965 war against Pakistan. A soldier in the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME), Petkar was severely injured during an attack.

Bullets tore through his body, and he was further run over by a passing army vehicle. The incident left him paralyzed for life, with a bullet still lodged in his spine.

"Fear has no place in a soldier's life," Petkar says, in an interview with The Economic Times. "I never felt any fear. I wanted to fight for my country and do something I could be proud of."

Despite the physical limitations, the soldier's spirit remained unbroken.

"My only option," he adds, "was to move to sport and do something outstanding. That is what I did.”

Rise of the champion

Petkar’s transition from a soldier to an athlete was difficult. Preparation was a long and demanding process, but his determination never faltered.

He found solace and purpose in sports initially in table tennis and later in swimming. The water made him feel weightless, a freedom he craved, after his injury.

"It involved a huge amount of hard work," Petkar recalls, "and it was all about passion and determination to not give up. The will to do something for the country helped me, I think." His dedication paid off.

He participated in the 1968 Paralympics and continued to excel in various sporting events, including the Stoke Mandeville International Paraplegic Meets, where he consistently broke own his records.

He bagged the gold medal in 50m Freestyle Swimming at the 3rd Commonwealth Paraplegic Games held in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also won a silver medal in Javelin Throw and a bronze medal in Shot-put at the same event.

But, the turning point came in 1972. By then, Petkar had honed his swimming skills and was confident in his abilities. "I look back at the gold medal with a lot of pride," he says. "The year before I had won gold at the Commonwealth level in Edinburgh and was confident of doing well at the Heidelberg Paralympics,” he adds.

A legacy beyond the gold

Petkar's 1972 victory was a watershed moment for Indian Paralympic sports. In a country where disability sport was largely unknown, it gained recognition and respect from the people.

He continued to rack up accolades, winning the General Championship Cup for five consecutive years (1969-73).

In 2018, his contribution was acknowledged, and he was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri award.

Today, Petkar is an inspiration to aspiring athletes and a symbol of hope for those facing challenges.

Looking back, he acknowledges the challenges he faced but emphasizes the importance of perseverance. "In India, sport for the handicapped or the disabled wasn't much known then and it wasn't easy," he says.

Despite the odds, Murlikant Petkar, the soldier turned athlete not only defied limitations but paved the way for a brighter future for Paralympic sports in India.

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