Meet Niranjan Mukundan, a 24-year-old ace swimmer from Bengaluru, Karnataka.
He was the world junior champion at the 11th IWAS (International Wheelchair Amputee Sports) Junior Games at Stadskanaal in the Netherlands in 2015, bronze medallist at the Asian Para Games in 2014 and a Limca Book of World Records inductee.
Despite all his remarkable achievements, there is one thing that stands out—his incredible will to succeed despite all the odds.
Niranjan was born on September 4, 1994, in Bangalore, with Spina bifida, a congenital malformation that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly, affecting physical and intellectual development.
His parents were devastated when they got the news but were determined to make him better.
Then, water came to his rescue.
For his recovery, doctors had initially advised him to either take up horse riding or swimming, which would assist his lower body movements. Unenthusiastic about horse riding, Niranjan chose swimming.
“First, they put me in a bathtub. There, I was flapping my hands and legs, but when they put me outside, my legs weren’t moving. So, water became a very magical element in my life. Eventually, my hands and legs grew, and one day, the bathtub cracked because it couldn’t hold me any longer. Eventually, they enrolled me into a swimming pool, which was 50 metres long and 25 metres wide so that I could flap my hands more. Kids usually take 21 to 26 days to learn swimming, but I completed my course in six days,” he said in a 2017 TedX talk.
Niranjan took to swimming when he was 8 years old, and he considers it to be his first love. It was at the swimming club in Jayanagar, where his coach, John Christopher, spotted his undeniable talent and suggested that he try his hand at parasports.
He was hesitant but eventually agreed, and with much nervousness Niranjan represented Karnataka at the Nationals. He finished dead last in his first race. “Disappointed, I went to my coach and told him competitive sports isn’t for me. But my coach persisted with me, and we trained hard again. He told me ‘patience and perseverance is going to take you higher,’” he recalls in the same talk.
He started training for 30 minutes, raised it to an hour, then three hours, and today, he trains for nine hours a day. Three months later after that initial disappointment, he competed once again in another national-level competition.
This time he finished first, and it was his first ever medal for the state. This was when he decided that he would become a para-athlete.
“If I am unable to train due to injury, I visualize myself in the pool swimming. I try not to lose focus and prepare myself mentally,” he told Bangalore Mirror.
Since birth, Niranjan has undergone a mind-boggling 17 surgeries. According to another publication, there was one operation that took 16 hours. He was barely 10 years old at the time, and that operation was needed to straighten his legs which had turned inwards because of muscle compression. As a consequence, 32 metal rods had to be inserted into his legs, although later on the rods were removed
Despite the constant roadblocks that came along the way as a consequence of his medical condition, he persisted and persevered.
In 2010, he was finally given the opportunity to represent the country at the IDM German Swimming Championship in Berlin.
Unfortunately, the competition did not go as planned, and nerves got the better of him. Once again, doubts had entered his mind, but yet again, his coach was there to egg him on.
Two years later, Niranjan won his first international medal, a bronze in the 200 m freestyle at the same event, the IDM German Swimming Championship in Berlin. In the following year, he won more international medals at the IWAS World Junior Games in Puerto Rico, securing two silver medals in the 100m freestyle and butterfly along with two bronze medals.
The following year he suffered a serious injury, for which he had to undergo six months of bed rest. Although he missed the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, he turned his attention to other massive events in the future. He eventually won the bronze medal in the Asian Para Games.
However, it was at the 11th IWAS Junior Games at Stadskanaal in the Netherlands in 2015, where he set the world alight, winning 10 medals (7 gold and 3 silver) and was crowned Junior World Champion.
Niranjan also entered the Limca Book of Records in 2017 after he completed the Golden Quadrilateral by car in record time. Accompanied by his childhood friend Vivek as navigator, Niranjan completed 5,846 km journey in 124 hours and 52 minutes passing through Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
Niranjan has gone from strength to strength, making his mark in the senior events as well. Last June, he set an Asian Record at the Para-Swimming World Series, Berlin, clocking 03:16:01 in the 200m Backstroke event. After suffering an ankle injury in December, he underwent surgery and bed rest for two and a half months.
However, he’s back and earlier this week won five gold medals in the 100-metre freestyle, 50-metre breaststroke, 50-metre butterfly, 200-metre IM (individual medley) and 200-metre breaststroke events at the Norwegian Swimming Championships 2019 (Ado cup).
Today, his medal tally has breached the 50 mark.
With achievements in the pool, came accolades, and Niranjan received the National Best Para Sportsperson Award from the Government of India in 2015 and the Eklavya award for outstanding performance in sports by the Government of Karnataka in 2016, among others.
For this fan of Michael Phelps and Rahul Dravid, the sky is indeed the limit.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)