Madhavi Latha began swimming at the age of 37, when doctors told her that she had about six months to a year to live, and only hydrotherapy could help her. Today, she is a national champion in para-swimming.
Madhavi, now 47 years old, was affected by polio when she was seven-months-old. This damaged her legs and spine, confining her to a wheelchair. And when she reached her late 30s, doctors told her that her condition had also cut short her life, giving her only six months or one year more.
â€śAs I have been sitting from my childhood, one lung of mine was covered by my spine and the other was half-covered. I could not get enough oxygen, and there was immense back pain.â€ť she said.
Following her doctorâ€™s advice, she turned to hydrotherapy and began swimming on her own because she could not find a coach to teach her. After she learnt swimming, she finally found a coach ready to help her.
Madhavi has come a long way from that point, winning three gold medals in the 11th National Paralympic Swimming Championships in the 50m freestyle, breast stroke and back stroke competitions.
While she is confined to a wheelchair on the ground, explains Madhavi, inside the water is another matter altogether. â€śUnder water my weight is lesser. Inside the water, I can use muscle movements with little effort. I feel like a fish inside the water.â€ť
But Madhaviâ€™s sporting talents arenâ€™t only restricted to the pool. The national swimmer is also a wheelchair basketball player. Indeed, she is the President for the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, as also the General Secretary for the Para Olympics Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu.
However, for the longest time in her life, people around her did not encourage her to take part in sports. â€śPeople think you shouldnâ€™t let people with disability participate in sports, as they will get injured. Society feels that we cannot participate in sports. There are lot of misconceptions and fears,â€ť she says.
Madhavi feels that the best way to start bringing in a change is by creating awareness. â€śSports makes a person physically and mentally stronger. It gives much more exposure to a person with disability,â€ť she explains.
One of the biggest challenges for disabled persons in pursuing sports is access to sports facilities, she says. â€śOne day, my swimming pool was getting renovated so I decided to go to another pool. Even after being a national champion, they told me that I cannot swim on my own, that I need to bring my medical certificate and show it to them.â€ť
Besides access, Madhavi feels that the other big problem is the absence of para-sports in school curriculums. She says, â€śThere is no mention in the syllabus about para-sports. Basketball and wheelchair basketball are similar, but for a few modifications. Children need to be taught about the para-sports.â€ť
The situation is made worse by the fact that there arenâ€™t many instructors and coaches who know how to train persons with disability, she adds. â€śWe do not even have sports equipment for wheelchair-bound sportspersons. It has to be imported from abroad.â€ť
Added to all these difficulties, there is little support coming by way of government policies. â€śThere should be specific policies for sports in the Paralympics. There are not even hostels for sports people with disabilities,â€ť she says.
It is only if this situation changes, she says, and Paralympics gets the attention it deserves from schools and the government that we will have more Mariappan Thangavelus winning gold medals for our country.