Meet Madhavi Latha: The Crusader for Wheelchair Basketball in India

On January 18, 2016, she was honoured with the “Built Tough Award” at the Adding Smiles Ambassador Awards ceremony for her efforts towards promoting sports among differently abled people.

Eight years ago, when polio affected Madhavi Latha sought her doctor’s assistance for her deteriorating health conditions, she was told she had just a year to live.

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The dignitaries from IWBF, during the second National Wheelchair Basketball Championship held at Delhi, along with Madhavi Latha (seated 2nd from left)- the president and Kalyani Rajaraman (seated 2nd from right)- the Secretary General of WBFI.

The disease had compressed her spinal cord. With one of her lungs covered by the spine, the lack of oxygen had made her muscles weak and her body was succumbing to the pressure. An immediate spinal surgery was required and her chances were still said to be bleak.

She then met a physiotherapist, Mr. Ananda Jothi, who suggested the process of hydrotherapy – exercises done under water – to increase her chances of survival. His confidence made Madhavi attempt the therapy against her family’s desire. They ridiculed the possibility of a paralysed person surviving in water. To everyone’s surprise, the buoyancy of water made her body light and the weak muscles in her legs could bear her weight. She could walk under water. “This meant a completely different world of freedom to me”, she says.

Her health improved, but she didn’t want to give up on this new found world yet because she had other plans with it.

Madhavi Latha, the president of WBFI, in a discussion with a member from the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the inaugural day of the tournament.

Madhavi Latha, the president of WBFI, in a discussion with a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the inaugural day of the tournament.

Having being employed with the MNC Bank Group, Madhavi wished to take part in the corporate Olympiad in 2010 to represent her organisation, which was then exclusive for able-bodied athletes.

“The organiser’s, worried for my safety, made me swim with four other people for support”, she recollects.

To everyone’s astonishment, she finished the 100m freestyle to great applause, being conferred with the title of the most encouraging sports person. This first competitive race was a turning point in her life. She subsequently participated in the Para-Swimming National Championship and won three gold medals. This was just the beginning of her tryst with para-sports.

If at the age of 40 Madhavi could become a national champion and find happiness through sports, she began to wonder how it might change the lives of differently abled children. This led her to initiate a movement called “Yes We Too Can”, through which she addressed people with disabilities about the benefits of sports in their lives. While interacting with the community at a larger level, she became aware of the challenges encountered by them in the society. Factors such as funding, transportation and family support were a hindrance to many, even if they wanted to be actively involved and participate in the sports. Madhavi concluded that it was the society that needed education and awareness. Through lectures and debates in various forums and by using media platforms, she went on to sharing her thoughts. She met and gathered like-minded people who eventually led to the formation of a state-level association in Tamil Nadu for para-swimmers. The Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu was started in 2011 with four para-swimmers. Today, it has around 300 para-swimmers – 60 of whom qualified and represented the state in the recent national championship.

Several NGOs and corporate organisations were willing to provide Madhavi with the necessary support to nurture para-sports in India.

Her collaboration with the UK-based NGO, Choice International, led her to Wheelchair Basketball.

Madhavi poses with the basketball before her first game as a wheelchair basketball player.

Madhavi poses with the basketball before her first game as a wheelchair basketball player.

Madhavi, with few others, took the initiative to form the national body – Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) in 2014. Through the establishment of WBFI, she came across Kalyani Rajaraman, a person who had great experience in working with NGOs and in interacting with the differently abled community. The two women spearheaded the spread of the sport in the country along with their colleagues.

Madhavi and Kalyani had to overcome several hurdles in their journey. The lack of national and state level sports associations and clubs for wheelchair basketball posed the initial challenge of finding individuals who could be encouraged to play.

To counter this, WBFI conducted workshops in organisations like Amar Jyoti and Indian Spinal Injury Centre in Delhi and the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in Pune to help individuals play the sport professionally.

Madhavi with the first women’s team at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, pay attention to their coach during a timeout amidst the match.

Madhavi with the first women’s team at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, pays attention to their coach during a timeout amidst the match.

The end of 2014 marked the symbolic birth of the sport in our country, with the first National Wheelchair Basketball Championship at Chennai with five participating teams representing the states of Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Over the next one year, Madhavi and Kalyani were invited by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), to attend the Asia Pacific conference in Japan. With their diligent efforts, the duo was responsible for bringing the representatives from the IWBF to be associated with them in the second National Wheelchair Basketball Championship held at New Delhi in December 2015.

Madhavi was at the forefront at this event. Being a part of a women’s team herself, she set the tone for all the other women participating for the first time.

Madhavi in a discussion with the President- Mr.Ulf Mehrens and the Secretary General- Ms.Maureen Orchard from the IWBF.

Madhavi in a discussion with the President- Mr.Ulf Mehrens and the Secretary General- Ms.Maureen Orchard from the IWBF.

“We need to spread the sport at the grassroots by forming clubs at the city and state level. We need to encourage every association to have targets in bringing in more women and child players to the game.In fact, WBFI’s aims to see a team from India at the Wheelchair Basketball Championship, in the 2020 Paralympics at Tokyo”, she says with her visions clearly ahead of her.

For someone who accidentally stumbled upon the avenue of para-sports just seven years back to save her life, Madhavi has made a great difference to this field in a very short span of time.

The Wheelchair Basketball Community at the Second National tournament, held at Delhi in December 2015.

The Wheelchair Basketball Community at the Second National tournament held at Delhi in December 2015.

The effort one individual had to take in order to bring up a bandwagon to campaign for the growth of a sport in India, which is otherwise being played by 150 countries worldwide, is surprising. Her efforts will only ensure more people being sensitised to the needs of people with disabilities, parents opening up their mindset about their child’s capabilities and the government taking measures to make our society a more inclusive one.

You can support Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India by contributing here.

– Shrikkanth Govindarajan

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About the author: Shrikkanth Govindarajan is a Documentary Photographer – Filmmaker from Chennai, whose work revolves around highlighting stories of people and communities that deserve recognition. Through his photo-essays and documentary films, he believes a larger social change can be brought about – one where people through self-reflection and realisation can transform the society.

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