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Champ para swimmer Wg Commander Shantanu looks to set a new record, this time in rowing

Our soldiers make us proud, on the battlefield, in peace time and on the sports field. The Story of the Week is on Wing Commander Shantanu, an Indian Air Force pilot, who has made a remarkable turnaround after he was left disabled in an accident. A champion para swimmer, he is now in the team of para rowers who will represent India for the first time in an international event.

At the World Asian Para Rowing Competition in South Korea in October this year, India will be sending a team for the very first time. In the team will be Wing Commander Shantanu, whose presence is a story of remarkable determination. It also speaks volumes about the Indian Army which has played a central role in Shantanu's turnaround..

Rewind to January 2017 when Shantanu was posted at an Indian Air Force base in Hashimara on the Bengal-Bhutan border. While riding his bike to work, he met with an accident and was severely injured. Medical help arrived, but rather late and Shantanu lost a lot of blood and was put on ventilator support for two months.

"Doctors had written his chances off, recalls wife Sujata Bhattacharjee. The couple had been married barely four months at the time.

Shantanu fought back and was sent to the Spinal Cord Injury and Rehabilitation Centre (SCIC) at the Military Hospital Kirkee in Pune. "When I came to the hospital I had just come out of coma and was in severe depression for three months, he says.

In this dark period, an unexpected ray of light walked into the hospital one day in the form of Colonel Gaurav Datta, perhaps India's only para triathlete, who underwent a below knee amputation after a mine blast injury in 2001 on the line of control in J&K. An experience that puts him in a position to understand the issues faced by people with disabilities.

I would visit the patients in SCIC Ward often to try and uplift their morale and just be there for them. Also to scout for any soldiers who could be motivated, moulded and trained to participate in Paralympic Sports. When I met Wg Cdr Shantanu for the first time he was close to being called a quadriplegic, wherein all four limbs have been affected and the person has little or no locomotor control. Fortunately, he had some control of his arms. He was physically quite weak though. I found him to be despondent, low in spirit, and negative in thought. - Colonel Gaurav Datta, Officer-in-Charge, Army Paralympic Node, Member, Asian Rowing Federation, Para Rowing Committee

Colonel Datta motivated Shantanu by talking to him about other army and air force personnel who had been injured on duty but found new direction in para sports. Two visits later when he found Shantanu still low, he minced no words. "On my third visit, I told him that we will meet next time only when you have decided to do something with your life instead of wallowing in self-pity.. I just told him that I wouldn't want to waste my time. So, make it worth my while.

Darkness to light

The words worked and in a week's time, Shantanu sought permission to swim. A few months after he started training, he won two gold medals at a championship organized by the Paralympics Swimming Association of Maharashtra.

He has not looked back since.

"I never thought I would come this far, says Shantanu. "I was planning to continue swimming seriously and build on that since this is something I could do independently and was familiar with. I never imagined rowing would happen for me. Colonel Datta saw me in the pool and noticed I could swim 800 metres in one stretch and had progressed very quickly in a few months' time.

Shantanu is now training intensively for the Korea event to reach peak physical fitness. Colonel Datta is clear that a large part of the credit for this changed man goes to Shantanu's wife. "Mrs Sujata has been the bulwark of strength in his fight and continued to gently nudge him, egg him on and coax him to take the next more difficult step. I was merely a catalyst.

Sujata says she turned to spirituality and happy memories to see this dark period through. "People would say things like the accident happened because the marriage was unlucky for Shantanu. I motivated him by talking about the good times we had and how we should work towards bringing them back. I discovered my spiritual side in those times.

Shantanu now has just one ambition. To win a gold medal for India and live up to the support shown in him by the Indian Army and others around him.

"Brigadier C. M Sreedhar, Military Hospital Commandant, Colonel Anil Kumar Mishra, Head of Orthopaedics and Datta Sir have helped me reach where I am today. When I told them I wanted to swim, they said go ahead. They were supportive when it came to rowing too. They have always encouraged me to come out of the hospital and live my life.

It's a support that Colonel Datta reminds us, sets the Indian Army apart.

"It is one of the few armies in the world that retains its soldiers disabled in the line of duty. The Army has the SCIC for treatment of soldiers with spinal injuries, Artificial Limb Centre, Pune

Truly, Brothers in Arms.

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