Mohammad Shams Alam Shaikh is a paraplegic swimmer who has overcome all odds and found a place for himself as an open-sea swimmer and international-level para-swimmer. He swam in the Arabian Sea, along the Sinquerim-Baga-Candolim sea in Goa, and won a bronze medal in the Para-Swimming Series in 2017. The following year, he ranked 8th in the Asian Para Games.
The 34-year-old athlete is a resident of Gurugram, and has been competing in para-sports since 2012. Before that, Shams was an international-level martial artist. But in 2010, he was diagnosed with a tumour in his spinal cord, and after undergoing surgery, was left with permanent paraplegia.
Conquering all odds, in March 2021, this determined athlete participated in the 20th National Para-Swimming Championship and won three medals — two gold and one silver. The competition was held in Bengaluru, and Shams spent only a few months training for it.
“The competition was to be held in 2020, but was postponed because of the pandemic. For eight months, I was unable to access a swimming pool and was only able to practice regular fitness at home. However, a swimming pool at Excelsior American School, located 30 kilometres from my home, has been open since November 2020. Authorities were kind and allowed me to train there, despite it being a members-only space,” Shams tells The Better India.
A tough road to success
Through the COVID-19 lockdown, when Shams was forced to stop swimming, he realised that the lack of fitness was taking a toll on his physical and mental health.
He says that since 2010, when he first began swimming, he has never experienced any side effects of paraplegia, including infections in his lower body. However, during the lockdown, he developed a urinary infection and had to seek immediate medical help.
“For a few months, I was feeling very low because of my condition. But after swimming pools opened, and I began training for my upcoming competition, I felt much better. This made me realise that swimming is not just a sport, but part of my lifestyle,” says Shams, adding that even after he began training, it was not an easy journey.
From December 2020 onwards, he travelled to the swimming pool every day by bus, because he did not have enough money to afford cab fare. While these buses were wheelchair-friendly, Shams had a tough time commuting, as he had to travel an extra three kilometres from the bus stop to reach the swimming pool.
It took him at least an hour to reach the pool, and twice, while deboarding the bus, Shams lost control and fell. However, he says that he never let small challenges stop him.
The fight for inclusivity
At the swimming pool, Shams was his own coach, and spent many hours training. “While there are para-swimming coaches in other cities like Bangalore, I could not find any in Gurgaon. So, I trained myself,” he says.
Meanwhile, though all the facilities in the area were up to the mark, he noticed that a ramp to enter and exit the water was missing. “When I noticed the pool lacked a ramp, I wrote an email to the authorities explaining how a ramp would make the venue more accessible and convenient for people with disabilities. They took it positively and had it installed within a few weeks,” says Shams.
This is not the first time Shams has stood up for inclusivity. In 2018, after he was appointed as a member of the policy making committee in the Sports Authority of Bihar, he noticed that the state lacked in providing equal opportunities for sportsmen and women with disabilities.
“This includes providing adequate training facilities, infrastructure, job opportunities, equal pay scale, and more. To ensure that these issues are addressed by higher-level officials, I have been working hard by writing to various ministers at the state and Central levels,” says Shams, adding that such changes would provide more opportunities to the youth across the country.
Apart from this, since 2019, he has been working with a Gurgaon-based company named Hella Automotive to produce wheelchairs that are customised according to every user’s needs. He says he heads the project, which is part of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative. To date, he has made eight prototypes which are being tested by four para-athletes.
Winning three medals
After juggling a hectic schedule between work and training for three months, in March, Shams travelled to Bengaluru to participate in the National Para-Swimming Championship. He competed in three categories — 50-meter butterfly, 150-meter medley, and 100-meter freestyle and won two gold and one silver medal respectively.
As Shams continues his training, in the future, he hopes to represent India in the Paralympics.