India’s para-swimmer Niranjan Mukundan was born with spina bifida, an incomplete formation of the spinal cord.
This meant 19 surgeries, missed school and lying in recovery for months.
At the age of seven, Mukundan was advised to swim as aqua therapy, allowing him to fight his way to victories against the choppy waters of life. By 18, he had won his first international medal and by 25 he rose through the ranks to be the first Indian para-swimmer to bag 50 international medals for his country.
He was also crowned the Junior World Champion for a record-breaking performance in 2015. Mukundan also became the youngest recipient of the prestigious National Award from the Indian government. As a child, Mukundan could not walk and had to be operated upon when he was one.
Al Jazeera spoke to him about his journey, challenges, dreams and how he has lived a life he did not choose.
Al Jazeera: When did you realise you wanted to swim professionally?
Mukundan: In 2003, I started swimming as therapy and realised it felt cathartic. I was unable to walk but I was able to swim. There was no gravity pulling me down, I felt like a fish. Within three months, I knew this was my sport. I’m told I was a hyper kid and this suited my disposition. What started with a purpose to strengthen my legs, got me noticed. Coaches spotted me and felt I could be introduced to para-sports representing Karnataka state. All this within six months. My parents also took a calculated risk with sports.
Al Jazeera: What challenges did you have to face?
Mukundan: There was no awareness in India with regard to para-sports. People did not know that we (differently abled sportspersons) race with the biggest athletes. They did not realise that it’s an elite-level sport. There are Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the Olympics for para-sports, too. We take equal pressure, if not more, than able-bodied sportspersons.
Al Jazeera: What has your experience with disability been like?
Mukundan: For the first eight years of my life, I had to be carried around. My parents carried me from my bedroom to the living room and to family events and social outings. Our own circle of friends and relatives would tell my parents to give me food and let me rest at home – why take the burden everywhere?
People thought I would never be independent.
In my early sporting days, people failed to see the logic behind my family supporting me with swimming. They did not believe in competitive sports for disability. My parents were advised to send me to a special school. But they never hesitated in supporting me with anything that I wanted. We [disabled people] are seen with sympathy that we have an impairment and we can’t do things that normal people do. I want to show the world that we have hidden potentials that open up avenues for us and the community in general.
You don’t find willpower, you create it.
Hope to race very soon…@KirenRijiju @TheBridge_IN @ParalympicIndia @shalinirajnish @narayanagowdakc #motivation #wednesdaythought #wednesdayvibes #fitness #2021goals #tokyo2021 #Swimming pic.twitter.com/a3BTW2TOSV
— Niranjan_Mukundan (@SwimmerNiranjan) February 10, 2021
Al Jazeera: You mentioned your family made this career possible for you. How?
Mukundan: I get complete support from home. It wouldn’t have been possible at a young age or even now, had my family not been encouraging. Last month, I lost my 81-year-old grandmother to COVID. She had been a huge inspiration, I was very close to her. My parents had to be out of the city for work and she would take me to training regularly.
Al Jazeera: How has the journey to the top been?
Mukundan: I was expecting a medal at my first competition representing my state but I lost pretty badly. At that moment, I questioned my fate: Why I was born with a disability and I wanted to give up on my dream. My swimming journey has been put on hold several times due to surgeries. It has not been easy. But with each surgery, with each setback, I envision I am getting better and stronger.
I tell myself I’m mentally strong even when I am healing physically. I affirm every day that I am getting better. Tough times are temporary. When you lose, you come out stronger. Hold on to your strengths and compensate for your disadvantages. During the lockdown, when I could not swim, I visualised my training. Like the several times we pivoted to an out-of-the-box training while I was in post-surgery recovery. I was made to visualise every training session, say like 100 laps in a stipulated time, 500 metres of cool down and such.
Al Jazeera: What goes on inside your mind just before and during a race?
Mukundan: There’s not much time to think during the race because they don’t last too long. It’s just one lap. But I have sleepless nights before a race. In the morning, I spend some quiet time, have a light breakfast and keep sipping water. We are all made to sit in a call room before the race. The atmosphere there is tense. Some athletes hit their legs, some coaches do pep talks, some jump around to loosen their muscles. I put on my headphones, put on the song “Alone” by Alan Walker and just walk around to release my nervous energy.
Al Jazeera: What changes would you like to see in the infrastructure here?
Mukundan: Para-sportspersons have performed well since the last two Paralympics in sports like swimming, athletics, table tennis and powerlifting. We have proved our mettle. For me, it was possible to continue with sports because my school gave me a cushion and support. They moved my classes to the ground floor and worked extra hours with me. Schools should encourage sports at all levels. Sporting venues across the country should be made in a way that they are disabled-friendly. There is progress in that direction. And we would also need more sponsorships.
Al Jazeera: Injuries, surgeries … how much do these setbacks affect you?
Mukundan: I don’t have sensation below my knees and for this reason, for the last 10 to 11 years, I kept getting ulcers on the feet. This would force me out of practice for six weeks to two months at a time. There have been times I have trained so well but was not able to go to the events.
It is my love for the sport and pride towards the nation that I rise up after each setback. Not everybody gets a chance to represent the country at the highest level. Given my condition and the 19 surgeries I’ve had, it makes me see sport in a different light. Initially, it was about applause and appreciation and people congratulating me. Now, it’s about understanding myself, appreciating my own body and the miracles it can do. After each setback, I am mentally stronger along with being physically healed. When the attitude is right, the medals just wrap around your neck.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.