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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 22, Dated 02 June 2012

    This Is Ability

    Sharath Gayakwad will be in London this year, the first Indian swimmer at the Paralympics. Even though he competes with himself, he wants to be the one to beat, finds Nishita Jha

    Sharath in his element

    Going for gold Sharath in his element

    Photos: Nishant Ratnakar

    WHEN SHARATH GAYAKWAD was born with a deformed left arm, his parents believed they would spend their lives teaching their son how to be normal. As he glides now through an azure pool, the first Indian swimmer to qualify for the paralympics, the 21-year-old has long transcended normal. Gayakwad is now in the league of the extraordinary.


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    In the past seven years, Bengaluru-based Gayakwad has won 40 national and 30 international medals. “In the beginning, my mother would cook my favourite food for me every time I won a medal, but I guess now we are all sort of used to it,” he smiles. At his first competitive swimming event — the 2003 National Games — Gayakwad won four gold medals at the age of 12. He remembers being petrified in the months leading up to the event, but once he entered the water, “everything became really good”.

    Watching Gayakwad’s effortless progress through the pool, one could forget that there is symmetry in swimming — arms cut through water; legs propel the body across it.

    While it is almost never a lack of love or pride that causes the parents of differently-abled children to fear for their future, there is always a sense of panic at imagining the asymmetry of their lives. Fortunately for Gayakwad’s parents, his teachers at Little Flower Public School (LPFS) showed few signs of trepidation — they insisted he participate in all the same activities as the rest of the class.

    At age nine, this included swimming — the only time that Gayakwad’s father, Mahadevarao, felt compelled to remind the faculty that his son was missing an arm. “He went to the principal to request exemption for Sharath — there was the very real fear of him drowning. But the principal insisted that since the boy had performed at par with his peers at everything else, preventing him from swimming would only make him feel isolated. He insisted that the coaches knew what they were doing,” recalls his mother, Bhagya.

    A deformed arm has meant that Gayakwad has had to work on developing ‘equilibrium’, something that fourlimbed people have naturally, by strengthening his shoulders, legs and core. “It is like paddling on a boat with one oar. Without this extra strength, he would swim in a circular motion instead of pushing himself forward,” explains John Christopher (41), his coach for the past seven years. “John Sir”, as Sharath calls him, spotted Gayakwad at the LPFS training programme over the summer of 2003, when he realised the boy could be groomed into a competitive athlete. The fact that he had never trained a para-athlete did not faze Christopher; he does not treated Gayakwad any differently from other athletes, and Gayakwad never asks for any exemptions from exercise or discipline either.

    Training for the Paralympics

    Newfound symmetry Training for the Paralympics

    As a nine-year-old still learning the difference between seeing himself as ‘differently-abled’ as opposed to ‘disabled’, Gayakwad remembers what troubled waters were like. “There were days of intense disappointment. There were classmates who passed comments. I spent a lot of time wishing that I had both hands. But nothing could be done about it,” he says. “To train your body, you need to train your mind first, to stop seeing yourself at a constant disadvantage.”

    There is an unrelenting bravado about Gayakwad now, a single-minded sense of purpose that is mirrored in world-class athletes everywhere. When his performance dipped after the 2010 Asian Para Games — where he won Bronze and qualified for the Paralympics — due to a shoulder injury, he pushed himself to train harder until he made up the two seconds he lost in his breaststroke.

    His training schedule for the 2012 London Paralympics in June sees him training from 5.30 to 8 every morning and evening, in addition to circuit training thrice a week. He gave up a fondness for junk food in favour of a restricted diet of home-cooked meals with no fuss. He admits, somewhat shyly, that while he does get a lot of female attention, being in a relationship will only distract him from training. “The Paralympic medal is the most important thing in my life right now,” he says, unaware of how unusual it is for a 21-year-old to wear ambition so easily.

    Gayakwad had to train to develop ‘equilibrium’. ‘Without that he’d be swimming in a circular motion, like a boat with one oar,’ says his coach

    Framed pictures of childhood idols, Sachin Tendulkar and Ian Thorpe, hang in his room. He has never considered the fact that there are no para-athletes on these walls — he takes a moment before saying, “I guess the media has never given much exposure to para-athletes, which is why I’ve never heard of them,” and then adds, “Thorpe and Tendulkar only compete with themselves — that’s the kind of athlete I want to be. I’m not swimming against the other guy with one arm or trying to swim faster than someone who has all their limbs. I want to constantly beat my own time.”

    Christopher repeats what may be the favourite adage of his generation; that there are no free lunches, and that “giving people any kind of privilege only makes them weak”. He recalls a conversation he had with the Gayakwads years ago, when he first told them that he wanted to train Gayakwad as a para-athlete — “There is no escaping what he has been born with — and that is talent. What you need to prepare yourself for now is not parenting a boy with a disability, but an Olympian.”

    Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 22 Dated 02 June 2012



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