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Paraplegic swimmer Mohammad Shams, talks about his journey from a village in Bihar to becoming an international-level champion. Shams is currently in the United States for the Global Sports Mentoring Program, an initiative of the U.S government.
I come from a small village called Rathos in Bihar. There are plenty of rivers there and they would get flooded regularly as the village is close to Nepal. So every child here has to know how to swim. It was a question of survival. You had to be good swimmer to survive the floods. So, you could say that I am a born swimmer.
Life before disability
I was not born with a disability. I had finished a degree in mechanical engineering in 2010 and was set to take up my first job in Mumbai, when I was diagnosed with a spinal tumour. I was operated upon at the Asha Parekh Hospital in Mumbai.
The operation was unsuccessful, and I was left paralysed below the chest. I lost all sensation or power. I started undergoing physiotherapy. Doctors said I would be able to walk in 10-15 days. However, it took me almost five months to recover. I was advised to do another MRI, and this one showed the tumour was still there. Nothing had been removed from my spine!
I had no personal savings, but with my brother-in-law’s help was able to undergo a second surgery. This one was successful and I recovered some mobility.
During my rehab, I got to know about the Parapelegic Foundation, which is an NGO in Mumbai, that helps patients with lower body paralysis. I joined the NGO as a patient and a doctor there told me to try swimming. He thought it would help me. I started swimming regularly and took up another job in customer care. My degree in mechanical engineering was of no use any more as I had taken a huge gap because of my illness.
A family of sportsmen
No one really trained me. You could say I was hooked to sports all my life. Sports is like a drug that you can never get out of. I was an state-level karate champ before the surgery.
My family is into sports in a big way. My grandfather, Abu Sehem was a well-known wrestler in Bihar and West Bengal. He took part in competitions in Nepal and West Bengal. My uncle and my brother were also wrestlers in my village so you could say sports is in our blood.
Before the tumour I even had dreams of being a full-time sportsman and had been selected for a state-level karate event in Jharkhand. But I had to drop that after the illness.
After my rehabilitation, I took up a job and continued to actively swim. I was inspired after listening to Rajaram Ghag, a Paralympic English Channel swimmer and Shiv Chhatrapati Awardee, at an event.
In 2012 I started taking part in national level swimming events. My first major event was the 7th Maharashtra Paralympic Swimming Championship held in Pune in 2012. I won a bronze and silver medal in freestyle and backstroke. In the same year, I won a bronze in the 12th Para Swimming Championship in Chennai.
In 2014, I won four gold medals at a championship held in Indore and was also awarded a trophy for best swimmer. I also set a record swimming 6 km in the sea in 1 hour, 40 minutes and 28 seconds, becoming the first paraplegic with 100% disability to do so. In 2017, I broke that record when I swam 8 kms in 4 hours and 4 minutes in Goa.
In all, I won 15 Gold medals in 2015. All this helped me towards getting a scholarship from Satyabhama University in Chennai to pursue an MBA.
My first international event was in Canada, where I won a bronze. I am currently ranked world number 15 in butterfly stroke.
Over the years, my disability levels have come down from 100% to 72%. I give the credit for this entirely to swimming. It has helped me overcome intense periods of depression and improved my mobility.
I believe in my goal and in my vision and this always keeps me motivated and prevents me from getting distracted or depressed for too long. I focus on my goals and my mission regardless of the taunts from my father and other family members. They tell me things like ‘you are so qualified but here you are swimming’.
I am pretty sure I will get money, name and fame. My main aim is to promote sports among disabled people. Also from a medical point of view, swimming is good for my nervous system and to keep me in a good condition.
Little official support
The larger problem that I continue to face is the lack of support. Funding is very difficult. There is very little awareness about para sports in India. There are very organisations that train paraplegic patients in sports. Lack of funds is something that has affected many sportspersons. Like Ghag, who was unable to represent India in International games because he did not have the means.
I have applied for sponsorship from the Maharashtra government, but have not received any word so far. States like Haryana, Punjab, Bihar and Delhi provide financial aid to gold medallists, but I have got no help. The least that the state can do is give us a discount for using government swimming pools.
There are many foundations that I have reached out to as well, but the response has been slow. The Asian Paralympic Committee has released a minimum qualification standard to take part in the 2018 Asian Games. world event. I have qualified for this in the 50-mt freestyle category I am also looking for the right coach for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
To have an edge at the international-level, one needs good training and access to the best coaches. The lack of support from the Sports Ministry and from other foundations is a serious worry for me. The lack of funds, I fear, will put a brake on my dreams.
The story was first published on NewzHook.