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Life does not come to an end on a wheelchair - Champion para swimmer Wing Commander Shantanu

24 January 2017 started like any other day in my life. I got up, dressed in my uniform and headed to duty at the Air Force base in Hashimara, where I was posted at the time. On my way to the base, which is on the West Bengal-Bhutan border, my bike skidded, and I fell into a roadside ditch.

My ribs were broken, and I had a lot of internal bleeding. None of the hospitals close by were equipped to deal with my injuries and it was three days before I finally landed at the Kolkata Command Hospital. I had no idea how badly off I was.

I was conscious until I was operated and then I went into coma and was on ventilator support. I had been married for less than four months at the time and doctors kept telling my wife I had no chance of surviving. My internal organs were collapsing, and they said I would live for maximum 48 to 72 hours. I came out of coma after two months.

After another three weeks at the hospital, I was taken off the ventilator and relocated to Pune. It was one of my darkest moments. I was very depressed because the nature of my injuries hit me then. I never thought I would take so long to come out of this.

Turning point

Swimming happened by chance. In Pune, during rehabilitation, I started aquatic therapy at the pool at the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre. The coach Anthony Pereira, who is a paraplegic soldier, thought I swam well and asked me to sign up for the state level championship.

I didn't think I stood a chance because it had been just a few months since I started swimming. I used to play basketball and swim while I was in the Air Force but that was in military events. This was a whole new ball game because I was up against civilians.

The championship went really well, and I won two gold medals, in 50-m freestyle and 50-m backstroke. It felt great. Here I was, a 39-year-old up against younger swimmers, but I realized that my skills were no less. I also got to meet so many people from different backgrounds and the exposure was great.

I recently signed up for a swimming camp where I learned tips to improve my strokes. I plan to use those inputs in the nationals and 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

Future goals

My aim is to take up swimming full-time. I am currently on administrative duty at the Military Hospital, Khirki and I am getting a lot of support from authorities here. No one has ever won a tournament while undergoing rehabilitation and they are very supportive of my ambitions to take up swimming.

My biggest learning is that disability is waiting to happen to any one of us, at any time. It's all about you, and how you take it. If I had decided to feel sorry about myself, I would have never gotten here. There was a time in my life I could not even sit on a wheelchair. Today with a caliper and walker, I am able to walk. Life does not end when you come on a wheelchair.

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