“When someone asks me how old I am, I confidently tell them 13 years. Because I wasted nearly 50 years of my life doing nothing,” says the first visually impaired person to complete the 19,000 Dolma Pass in Tibet.
Amarjeet Singh Chawla was 13 years old when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration; a condition where the tiny central portion of the retina called the macula, starts deteriorating. It affects about 77 million people in India in people over the age 60. Chawla had to accept during his teen years that his days of perfect sight were numbered.
By the time he had passed his matriculation exams, Chawla was already finding it difficult to read from the blackboard. Right after, he had to give up on his education. It was not until he was 40 years of age, that Chawla became completely visually impaired.
“Until then, I was neither on the dark side nor on the positive,” he says.
The anticipation of blindness and how it will restrict his life was slowly draining happiness from him. As a child, Chawla was a sharp student and loved playing kabaddi too. But, as the macular degeneration started showing effect, Chawla became an increasingly reserved person. Keeping away from friends, outdoor games and everything he loved also meant that he slowly slipped into depression.
None of the treatment he underwent worked—which is the case in macular degeneration—and soon enough, Chawla had realized that he just needed to accept this truth of his life.
Till the age of 40, when he still had some vision, he ran a business in Mumbai, got married to the woman he loved and lived a normal life with his two daughters—Jasmeet and Guneet.
But, life really started for Chawla at the age of 48 when he was invited to a marathon in Mumbai. “I asked my daughter to read out the message that I received back in 2004. It was from the National Association for the Blind and said that a group of people from the association will be participating in a marathon in Mumbai. This marathon was designed for the visually impaired, like me, and the bank, that was organizing the event, was going to provide us with escorts. Honestly, I didn’t know what exactly a marathon meant at the time, but I decided to join,” the ‘Sporty Sikh’ tells The Better India (TBI).
He had to cover a distance of 7 kilometers. Chawla trained for three days before the marathon. The task was tough, but it was precisely for this reason alone that the Mumbai man had entered the competition.
Elaborating on what motivated him to stay in the race, Chawla told TBI, “In the marathon, I was assigned an escort who held one end of a stick and I held the other. That’s how she guided me. I was told that Kapil Dev is watching me run and what could be a bigger motivator than that? But after we completed a certain distance, my escort told me that Kapil Dev wanted to be my escort! He ran about 300 metres with me!”
Successfully completing the marathon next to a legendary cricketer filled him with the determination and Chawla vowed never to stop. What started as a long-distance run in 2004 has now resulted in 171 running events so far, out of which 104 are half marathons, 63 are 10 km runs and four are ultra-marathons!
“When someone asks me how old I am, I confidently tell them 13 years. Because I wasted nearly 50 years of my life doing nothing. I just started living after the first marathon,” Chawla says jovially.
“On one such run, a gentleman came to me and asked if I have ever climbed a mountain. I never had so I thought, why not now?” he shares. And thus, his passion for running branched out to trekking adventures too!
Soon enough, Chawla was researching on the Himalayan treks that he could try his feet at. Roping in his younger brother, Kawaljeet, as his escort, he decided that the 13, 800 feet high Sar Pass in Himachal Pradesh, will be his first trek. The fresh air of the Himalayas, the adrenalin you get after you reach the summit and every small and big challenge that comes your way enroute the top, was enough to fuel the enthusiasm of Sporty Sikh.
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Even before he had completed the trek, Chawla knew this was not going to be his last. The trekker became the world’s first visually impaired person to scale the nearly 19,000 feet Dolma Pass in Tibet! Three Indo-Tibetan Border Police officers guided him through the trek and ensured that the determined mountain climber scales its peak.
Along with the Himalayas, Chawla has successfully conquered the closer-to-home Sahyadri ranges too.
Recently, he rappelled down an 1100 ft base on Raigad fort, securing another record for himself.
“Yes, it is easier for those with vision to do all these tasks but that doesn’t mean I should stop, right? In the beginning, my family told me not to pursue this. ‘Is this your age to try such things? You can’t even see, why take risks.’ I knew that it was their love and care that made them worry. But once I started, they gave me all the support I needed. For me. my family is second only to God,” he says.
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Apart from trekking and running, the amazing athlete has also won state and national level swimming competitions for the differently-abled. In our conversation, while we spoke about his achievements and the celebrities who have admired him, we also came to know that he speaks eight languages!
An inspiration through and through, Chawla says that if his story touches you then whether you are young or old, visually impaired or not, you must do something to be fitter and stronger. That is all he wants his love for adventure sports to inspire in others and we hope it achieves its target!
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)