Wheelchair no barrier to my dreams - My Take by Mohammad Shams, paraplegic swimmer

In My Take, 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 and was set to take up my first job in Mumbai, when I was diagnosed with a benign spinal tumour. I was operated upon at the Asha Parekh Hospital in Mumbai.

The operation was unsuccessful, and I was left paralyzed 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 family’s help was able to undergo a second surgery. This one was successful and I recovered some mobility.

A family of sportsmen

I started swimming again after going for an event where I heard some eminent Paralympians speaking. I was also inspired by the story of a disabled man who swam across the English Channel.

Sports is like a drug that you can never get out of. I was an international-level karate champ before the surgery. My family was into sports like wrestling in a big way. Before the tumour I even had dreams of being a full-time sportsman and had been selected for a state-level event in Jharkhand. But I had to drop that after the tumour was detected.

The Paralympics gave me fresh hope. In 2012 I started taking part in national level swimming events. In 2014 I got 4 medals in my category. I also set a 6-km swimming record in the sea. I won 15 gold medals in 2015. I also won a sponsorship from the Satyabhama University for an international event in Canada, where I won a bronze. I am currently ranked number 15 in the world in butterfly stroke.

The problem is the lack of support. There are many foundations that I have reached out to, but the response has been slow.

The Asian Paralympic Committee has released a minimum qualification standard to take part in the 2018 world event. I have qualified for this in the 50-metre freestyle category.

However, 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.

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