Indian Para Swimmer and TEDx Speaker Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh, Madhubani, Bihar, was declared 100 percent disabled with his lower body paralysed following a surgery to remove a life-threatening tumour in his spinal cord. Recipient of Khel Samman Awards from the Ministry of Sports in Bihar State, Shams set a world record for the longest open water swim by a person with paraplegia in 2017. In conversation with Brainfeed, Shams talks about his childhood and future plans.
What was the transition from martial arts to swimming like?
A: The surgery was shocking for me. At 23-year-old and on the brink of completing Engineering, being told that I will not be able to walk again completely shattered me. My mother motivated and helped me get started. Post-surgery, as a student of martial arts, I practiced meditations and yoga. Doctors wrote “100 percent disabled on my certificate,” but I realized my capabilities and pushed the boundaries.
How was your experience braving the Arabian Sea?
A: I peeped deep inside the water and the darkness jilted me. The jellyfishes touching my body was intimidating at first. But when you are determined about your goals, it always gives you the hope to beat against the odds. The transition from martial arts to swimming occurred after my surgery. I was taking physiotherapy sessions and swimming helped to rebuild my confidence.
As a child, you had to learn swimming to survive floods in your village…
A: Yes, flood in Madhubani has a long history and is still recurrent for which no government has taken any active measure. It is compulsory for children to learn swimming.
Initially, swimming was not my passion but a necessity. Nobody had taught me swimming, and swimming came to me instinctively. After the surgery, I was acquainted with professional swimming and its technical dimensions by Rajaram Ghag, a disabled swimmer who have crossed the English Channel. I was initially advised to practice swimming to regenerate my nervous system. Later, it became my passion.
How did you manage corporate life and practice sessions?
A: In 2012, I joined Eureka Forbes and later I shifted to IBM, but I was keen to continue swimming after my 2012 State and National Championship. However, my work was often coming in my way. I quit my job. In 2014, I participated in National Championship. I fulfilled my dream of representing the country for which I was being trained since my pre-disability days.
Are you planning to build any coaching centres for different-ably sportspersons?
A: In 2018, when I was briefly staying at Dharavi slum, the locals would not let me practice in the nearby swimming pool. I could not afford to stop practicing. To continue with my practice, I would cover 10 kilometres daily in my wheelchair since reserving transport for daily commute was not financially viable for me. Such blatant discrimination against disabled athletes are common.
As a Secretary General of the Mumbai Para Sports Association, I aim to improve sports at the grassroots levels and give people the platform to soar higher. In India, we do not have any concrete pipelines through which we can identify talented sportspersons and train them. I want to change that.
Any international tournaments in the pipeline?
A: I had a tournament in Thailand which was postponed due to the pandemic along with my plans to enroll in a Sports Management course in Germany. I hope the situation gets better and we return to swimming pools soon. I am looking forward to the 2022 Asian Para Games.