Former Junior World Champion and Indian Para-swimmer, Niranjan Mukundan, is eyeing greatness as the Paralympics get underway within a day. The illustrious athlete was born with Spina Bifida, a spinal cord defect that leaves the patient paralyzed below the hips. His journey of overcoming these odds and become one of the most decorated Indian athletes of our time never fails to inspire.
Niranjan Mukundan might be a household name in India today but his journey is something that most of us have been oblivious to. Niranjan was born with Spina Bifida, a defect that can render one handicapped for life. He has undergone nineteen surgeries, yet his perseverance made him the first Indian para-swimmer to win seven gold medals. Niranjan won his first international medal, a bronze in the 200m freestyle at the IDM German Swimming Championship in Berlin.
In 2013 he won more international medals at the IWAS World Junior Games in Puerto Rico, clinching two silver in the 100m freestyle and butterfly along with two bronze medals in the 100m backstroke and 50m freestyle. At the 2014 IWAS World Junior Games in Stoke Mandeville, U.K. Niranjan won a whopping eight medals, three gold, two silver and three bronze.
In November 2015, he won the state’s prestigious, Kannada Rajyotsava Prashasti and also received the National Award (best sportsman with disability) for his exceptional achievement in the field of sports. He won 10 medals (7 gold and 3 silver) in the World Junior Games held at Stadskanaal, Netherlands and was also crowned as the Junior World Champion. In 2016, Niranjan won eight more medals, also three gold, two silver and three bronze at the IWAS Junior World Games in Prague, Czech Republic.
Our team member Tuhin Sen speaks to the former Junior World Champion Niranjan Mukundan where he gets candid about his medical condition and his journey to be crowned the swimming champion that he is today.
Can you tell us what your growing up was like and about the condition you have?
I was born and brought up in Bangalore. I have a medical condition called Spina Bifida which paralyzes down the waist and can render them handicapped for life. I had to undergo several surgeries because of that. Even last year I had major surgery. I have had seventeen surgeries in total from the time I was 6 months old until the one that I had in 2018. While growing up, the doctors suggested I take up horseriding or swimming to strengthen my legs. I chose swimming. Once I got into the water, I felt like a fish. I learned the basics in 10 days when kids usually took 15-20 days for the same. The love for the water began at a very young age, probably at 6 or 7.
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So was it back then that you decided this is something you had to do for the major portion of your life?
No, not at all! The major aim of mine and my parents was to strengthen my legs and have a normal life. John Christopher, my coach with whom I have been training for the past 16 years spotted me. It was he who informed my parents of the potential I had and urged them to enrol me in competitive swimming. This is how I began my career as a para-swimmer.
How was your feeling when you won your first medal?
When I got my first medal at 8, I wasn’t even ready to believe that I had won a medal. I was a very slow swimmer before the competition began. My opponents would finish and be home while I would still be in the pool. So when I won the medal, it took me some time to accept it. I got a call to represent India in 2012. It was my first tour of Europe when I officially started swimming for India.
And when did you become the junior world champion?
In 2015. The championships were held in the Netherlands, where I took part in 10 events with the sole motto of giving my best. In 4 days of the competition, I became the Junior World Champion while becoming the first Indian para-swimmer to win seven gold medals.
How difficult is it for you to recover from surgery and participate in the next event?
It’s very difficult, to be honest. Because you directly drop from your prime performance state to a minus level. Then you have to come back to zero and scale the peak again. Fortunately, I have been equipped with good support in the form of my coach, friends, and family, doctors, physiotherapists that keep me mentally strong.
Tell us about your training routine. Is it different from able-bodied swimmers?
There is a difference. Sometimes we are not able to kick or have a problem with our shoulder, upper limb, and lower limb. Initially, when I started training, I used to swim for 35 minutes at a stretch. Gradually I extended it to 1 hour. Now I spend 8 hours a day in water and train for 2 hours in the gym. One of the Olympic Coaches from Spain, Miguel Lopez Alvarado offered me a scholarship in the year 2016. The scholarship has helped me train in Thailand for the past two years. As part of my training, I even compete and try to match with able-bodied swimmers to prepare mentally for the championships.
Your journey has been nothing short of a rollercoaster, but did you have to face any other challenges from the sporting ecosystem in our country.
Everyone has their struggles to make. To be where I am today has never been a cakewalk for me. I had to prove my capability to the federation and a lot of people. We live in a country where we are showered with rewards after winning medals whereas there are countries where athletes get the best support to make sure they win at the Olympics or other championships. We are still in the growing stage and I would never crib about it. The government has come up with a lot of schemes for sportspeople to improve their level of training.
Niranjan, you have been India’s one of the most achieved swimmers, let alone para swimmer. What are your plans next?
I am really keen to do better and make our nation at the Tokyo Olympics. I am at my peak right now, so I feel like continuing for a few more years. And after that, I would like to devote my entire time to help the next generation. So that’s the dream, post swimming career. I have a plan to start an NGO to help underprivileged kids and later start an academy of my own in India as well as outside India to help the young generation of swimmers and other athletes to achieve their dreams.
As this champion preps to make our nation proud at the 2020 Paralympic games, we wish him nothing but the best!
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