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Dystonia no barrier for Huafrid Billimoria who aims to challenge himself in different sports

Mumbai-based triathlete Huafrid Billimoria has a condition called dystonia that causes muscles to contract uncontrollably. He has not allowed that to come in the way of his passion for sports, his latest achievement being that he is the first Indian with dystonia to complete a 2.5-km swimming event.

Growing up with a disability is challenging and when the world at large shows an unkind face, it can be rather lonely and traumatic for a child. Huafrid Billimoria experienced that a lot while growing up in Mumbai. He calls it 'going through hell and back'.

"I had to deal with many severe learning disabilities and ADHD. My fight in life started at a very young age and bullying made it worse, he says. That did not come in the way of a fine academic record right through school and colleges.

Early setbacks

Huafrid, now 23 years old, was diagnosed with dystonia when he was 16. A chronic neurological disorder, dystonia affects a person's muscles, causing it to contract in an uncontrollable manner.

"Every step I took, I fell, stumbled and landed up with chronic muscle spasms, says Huafrid. "This is what dystonia does to you, you have no control over your body functions, 24/7. Even walking straight is a challenge.

That did not stop him from pushing himself harder, physically.

They say when God gives you challenges, he gives them to those who are strong enough to handle them. I kept that in mind and gradually realised that when I ran, I did not shake that much. I regained control over my body all over again. So I never stopped running, starting off with eight kilometres and recently I completed two half marathons under two hours, twenty minutes. This is the same lad who wasn't given enough hope of treatment without brain surgery, drugs or Botox injections. - Huafrid Billimoria, Social worker, Triathlete

Gradually he added mixed martial arts including capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art to his routine. Also an experienced swimmer, Huafrid's latest claim to fame is being the first Indian with dystonia to complete a 2.5-km swimming event in Thonnur.

"I started teaching Huafrid about two months ago, says his coach Deepthi Indukuri. "I have been helping him become a better swimmer and to improve his technique, and through it comfort and speed. My role in his swimming journey has been to fine-tune his technique and help him recognise what would work best for him.

Swimming with a condition like dystonia is not easy and Huafrid faced some difficulty. "I find breathing really tough as my neck keeps on shaking and the tremors carry down to my right side continuously as my right side is the most affected, he says. With coach Deepthi, he found different techniques to deal with this.

Right support

This included dealing with his high anxiety levels to overcome his fears, says Deepthi. "His anxiety is quite dominant, so we often had very long discussions about tackling this. What worked well was helping him understand why we are doing something and to experience the changes. From believing that dystonia stops him from swimming freestyle, he moved to swimming more than half the event in freestyle instead of breast stroke, which is a big step.

Huafrid's biggest strength, says Zarir Baliwalla, is his sincerity and willingness to work hard.

"'I actually met him for the first time at a Triathlon event in Pune less than two months ago, says Zarir. "I had read about the fact that he has dystonia and I was interested in how a child like this manages so many activities, including cycling. He approached me after the event and asked many questions and I could see the sincerity and determination in him.

On his part, Huafrid says he is lucky to have the support of people like Zair and Deepthi. "Zair was kind enough to take me to his gymkhana and make me practice with him for no charges at all. He just did it out of goodwill.

Huafrid is not resting easy after his latest achievement. His next target is the Ironman 70.3 Goa in October. This is India's first such event and Huafrid's eventual goal is to the first Indian with a disability to do the Ironman events in all the continents.

"I do anything and everything under the sun which has to do with physical exercise. I yet do fall, stumble, shake and cramp up while I do it all. Nothing stops me from doing it all regardless. I want to put my disability out there so I can garner awareness for disabilities that are not necessarily visible. The suffering doesn't change, there is a lot of suffering, yet the message I want to sign off with is NEVER EVER GIVE UP".

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