We are the new normal - Para swimmer, surfer, shooter Justin Jesudas on the secret behind his attitude

Disability can happen to anyone but with the right attitude and support, it need not become the end to life as one knew it. Justin Vijay Jesudas' story is a shining example of this. From winning medals at international swimming championships, rifle-shooting to now becoming a calendar model, Justin has not allowed disability to come in the way of his dreams, as he tells us in My Take.

In December 2009 I was working in Hyderabad when I was involved in a car accident. I sustained a spinal cord injury and was paralysed from the neck down. I was told I had become a tetraplegic, which means my shoulders are fine, but I have partial power in my elbows. And while my biceps are good, the triceps in both arms do not work. My wrist is moderately functional, but none of the fingers work.

Amazing all rounder

I was 29 years old at the time and my life was going great with a dream job at a bank. All that changed after the accident. I was told that spinal cord injury has no cure, and there were complications so the rehabilitation was not so effective. I lost control over my bowel movements. I had no bladder control either and my blood pressure dropped drastically.

For the first two years, until 2011, my complete focus was on trying to walk again. My family was very supportive. I am incredibly indebted to my parents, wife, my brothers and their families for standing by me at the time. They became the hands and legs that I did not have any more. However, I started to realize that I was focusing on something that I had no control over. I also realized that my family was doing everything for me.

That pushed me towards becoming independent. Instead of trying to walk again, I decided to focus on body parts over which I had control, like my shoulders and elbows. I started exercising my shoulders. My elbows and wrists were affected, but I started rebuilding whatever I could. Before the accident I was an active and fit guy so after three months of working out, I was able to move myself from the bed to wheelchair, and then the wheelchair to the car.

I realised that for those one-and-a half years after the accident, my family had been through such a hard time because they were living my life and not their own. I had become their sole focus. I decided that it was time to live my life.

Turning point

For the next few months I kept working out regularly. I eventually realized that there were quite a few things that I could do by myself. I started moving my fingers using my wrist. I was able to bend one finger and even type using my wrist. I also started driving again in a modified hand-operated car. Since then I have driven over 50,000 kilometres. Modifying that car was to me a sign of freedom and independence. Now my family needed me, they were dependent on me for traveling.

I decided to pursue wheelchair basketball after seeing some videos, but weakness in the upper limbs made this hard. In February 2014 I took up swimming because I needed cardiovascular activity. I was a little apprehensive in the early days. I was not sure how I would manage, because everything below my neck is paralyzed.

The lifeguards at the pool were worried too and they gave me a floater. The floater did not help me in any way and I took it off. I made sure the lifeguards were around just in case I needed them. It was very hard as I was not a skilled swimmer. My fingers were paralyzed, but I persisted. In a month’s time, I was able to swim 750 metres at a stretch.

Medal-winning performances

I decided to take up swimming at a competitive level and was able to swim one kilometre a day. I heard about the State Paralympic Swimming Championship and decided to take part. In July 2014, I entered the competition and won four gold medals. I realized that I was much faster than people who had far lesser disabilities than I did.

That motivated me to work harder and I started weight training. I decided to take part in the National Paralympic Swimming Championship in November 2014. The problem was that there were no coaches who knew how to train someone with paralysis so I watched YouTube videos and learned how to do the backstroke with my disability.

In Indore I won three golds at the national event. I decided to compete in international events. My first competition was in January 2015 in Toronto at the Can Am Championships. I won three gold medals and qualified for the 2015 Glasgow championships. I represented India and finished in the top 15. The Can Am event was expensive and my school friends helped me to participate by raising Rs four lakhs in a week’s time.

While in school and college, I used to be a competitive rifle shooter. I decided to take this up again after the Rifle Association of India started including shooters with disabilities in competitions. I took part in the State and South Zone and qualified for the nationals as well. In the nationals my score 619.4.

My plan is to continue pursuing swimming and shooting seriously along with all other aspects of my life. I don’t want to allow my disability to define my life.

I believe that as human beings we are intelligent creatures and have the ability to adapt to any situation. All we have to do is drop this attitude of "why me", and things will be a lot different. The most important thing to do is to live our lives. Come out of your confines and believe that you can be independent. What we are is the new normal.

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