19 surgeries, 66 medals: Indian para-swimmer Niranjan Mukundan | India

Indian para-swimmer Niranjan Mukundan was born with spina bifida, an incomplete formation of the spinal cord.

It meant 19 surgeries, missing school and recovering for months.

At the age of seven, Mukundan was advised to swim in aqua therapy, which enabled him to fight his way to victories against the rough waters of life. At 18 he had won his first international medal and at 25 he was climbing the ranks to become the first Indian para-swimmer to win 50 international medals for his country.

He was also crowned Junior World Champion for a record 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 on when he had one.

Al Jazeera told him about his journey, his challenges, his dreams and how he lived a life he did not choose.

Al Jazeera: When did you realize you wanted to swim professionally?
Mukundan: In 2003, I started swimming as therapy and realized that it seemed cathartic to me. I couldn’t walk but I could swim. There was no gravity pulling me down, I felt like a fish. In three months, I knew it was my sport. I was told I was a hyper kid and that suited my temperament. What started with the aim of strengthening my legs got me noticed. The coaches spotted me and felt that I could be introduced to para-sport representing the state of Karnataka. All of 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 knowledge in India regarding para-sports. People didn’t know that we (athletes with different abilities) run with the greatest athletes. They didn’t know it was a high level sport. There are also the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games for para-sports. We are under equal, if not more, pressure than able-bodied athletes.

Al Jazeera: What has been your experience with disability?
Mukundan: During the first eight years of my life, I had to be transported. My parents transported 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 feed me and let me rest at home – why take the burden everywhere?

People thought I would never be independent.

When I started out in sports, people didn’t see the logic behind my family supporting me with swimming. They did not believe in competitive sports for the disabled. My parents were advised to send me to a special school. But they never hesitated to support me with whatever I wanted. We [disabled people] are viewed with sympathy that we have a disability and cannot do the things normal people do. I want to show the world that we have hidden potentials that open up avenues for us and the community at large.

Al Jazeera: You mentioned that your family made this career possible for you. How? ‘Or’ What?
Mukundan: I get full support from home. It wouldn’t have been possible at a young age, or even now, if my family hadn’t 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 town to work and she regularly took me to training.

Al Jazeera: How did the trip to the top go?
Mukundan: I expected a medal at my first competition representing my condition but I lost quite badly. At that point, I questioned my fate: why I was born with a disability and wanted to give up my dream. My swimming trip has been suspended several times due to surgeries. This has not been easy. But with each operation, with each setback, I imagine that I am better and stronger.

I tell myself that I am mentally strong even when I heal physically. I say every day that I am improving. Hard times are temporary. When you lose, you come out stronger. Conserve your strengths and compensate for your disadvantages. During the lockdown, when I couldn’t swim, I visualized my workout. Like the many times we switched to out-of-the-box training while I was recovering from the surgery. I was made to visualize every workout, say like 100 laps in a time limit, 500 meters recovery and the like.

Al Jazeera: What goes on in your mind right before and during a race?
Mukundan: There isn’t a lot of time to think about during the race as they don’t last too long. It’s just a trick. But I have sleepless nights before a race. In the morning, I spend a little calm, I have a light breakfast and I continue to sip water. We all have to sit in a call room before the race. The atmosphere is tense. Some athletes bump their legs, some coaches give pep talk, some jump to relax their muscles. I put on my headphones, put on the Alan Walker’s song “Alone” and walk around just to release my nervous energy.

Al Jazeera: What changes would you like to see in the infrastructure here?
Mukundan: Para-athletes have performed well since the last two Paralympics in sports such as swimming, track and field, table tennis and powerlifting. We have proven our courage. For me it was possible to continue the sport because my school gave me a cushion and support. They moved my classes downstairs and worked overtime with me. Schools should encourage sport at all levels. Sports venues across the country should be designed to be suitable for people with disabilities. There is progress in this direction. And we would also need more sponsorships.

Al Jazeera: Injuries, surgeries… how much do these setbacks affect you?
Mukundan: I have no sensation under the knees and for this reason, for 10 to 11 years, I continued to have ulcers on my feet. This would require me to be absent from practice for six weeks to two months at a time. There were times when I trained so well but I couldn’t see the events.

It is my love for the sport and my pride in the nation that I feel after every setback. Not everyone has the chance to represent the country at the highest level. Considering my condition and the 19 surgeries I have had, it makes me see sport in a different light. At first it was a matter of applause and appreciation and people congratulated me. Now it’s about understanding myself, appreciating my own body and the miracles it can do. After each setback, I am mentally stronger and physically healed. When the attitude is right, the medals wrap around your neck.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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