Manish Pandey, a resident of Hirmi village in Chhattisgarh, will never forget one particular date – 2 April 2011. It was the day India and Sri Lanka battled for the cricket World Cup, and India won. But this monumental feat was overshadowed by another incident that occured the same day – Manish lost his leg.
The connection between the two events was that Manish, then 19 years old and in his first year of college, was rushing home to watch the match. “It was the only thought on my mind. I hopped on the train at Raipur station after appearing for my last written examination that day. The train is usually overcrowded, but that day, everyone seemed to be in a bit more hurry – most of them were excited for the match, like I was,” he tells The Better India.
Manish was standing at the door of the train and preparing to disembark at Tilda station to reach home. As the station approached, other passengers started rushing. “I was pushed from behind and fell off the moving train. My right leg was crushed under the train, causing a severe injury,” the 29-year-old says.
As the small town was ill-equipped to handle severe casualty and trauma cases, he was moved to Raipur, which was a two-hour journey from his village. The delay in accessing medical treatment and heavy loss of blood only made matters worse.
As he gained consciousness the next day, Manish realised he had lost his leg from the knee below.
However, despite losing his leg, falling into depression, having to cope with a changing lifestyle and being denied formal education due to his disability, Manish’s determination and grit remained unhindered. Not only did he accept his physical limitations, but he also went on to become a Paralympic champion, winning medals at the Asian games.
Getting back on his feet
Manish says the realisation of having lost his limb sank in a bit late. “The incident did not kill my excitement. The first question I asked the doctor after attaining consciousness the next day was whether India won the match. He said yes, which made me feel disappointed that I had missed out on witnessing the thrilling win. However, as the doctor informed me about the leg, I became quiet,” he says.
He adds that the realisation of his loss grew stronger over the next few days. “I could not use the toilet, wear my clothes, or run outside to play like a regular person. Before the accident, I was an active member of various sports teams, including cricket and volleyball, in my college. I missed it,” Manish says, adding that he quit his studies and never resumed the course again.
His father, a junior officer at UltraTech cement factory, bought him a Jaipur foot. Slowly, he started acclimatising to his artificial limb. He could walk, but not run. For the next three months, Manish fell into depression and struggled to deal with his new life, mentally and physically.
However, he says his friends supported him and accompanied him everywhere. “My friends and family never made me feel less of myself. They encouraged me to live the same life I had been living before the incident,” he adds.
Manish says that in 2013, he came across the word ‘Paralympics’ on the internet. The concept interested him, and he began digging for more information on the same. He was fascinated by blades, a unique prosthetic leg used by athletes for running, and decided to pursue running professionally.
However, there was a problem. Blades cost around Rs 6 lakh, an amount he could not afford. Manish approached a prosthetic company, requesting them to sponsor him. After checking his credentials and his passion for sports, the company agreed.
Mohana Gandhi, a Hyderabad-based prosthetic consultant, specialising in sports, agreed to sponsor Manish. “Manish seemed dedicated and sincere from the beginning. He willingly moved to Hyderabad and survived in a small room with expenses of Rs 5,000 a month. He was sincere and never deviated from his training and ultimate goal,” he says.
Mohana adds that fitting the blade and adjusting to it can often be challenging. “Every amputee has different adjustments. The sockets and bearings should fit well. Moreover, the body posture and other physical aspects determine how the blade suits the player. Manish was asked to move to Hyderabad for the same, and cooperated. He did not want or expect any sympathy from those around him,” he says.
Manish trained for months at Gachibowli Stadium, and participated in his first international tour in June 2014 at IPC Athletics Grand Prix, Tunisia. He won silver in the 200-metre and bronze medal in the 100-metre run. Later that year, he participated in the Asian Paralympic Games Incheon, South Korea in the 100-metre run, long jump, and 4×100 metres relay.
‘A source of infinite strength’
Motivated by his success, Manish pursued a one-year sports management programme in South Korea in 2015, followed by a two-week sports management seminar in Kagoshima, Japan.
He returned to India with a zeal to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sports. However, he says universities and educational institutions rejected him on the grounds of his disability. “It came as a shock. Their explanation was a clause mentioned in the course manual, which stated that no specially-abled person could pursue physical education. However, Manipal University extended support and allowed me to complete graduation in Physical Education and Sports in 2020,” Manish says, adding, “I am probably the first leg amputee to hold a degree in sports.”
In 2021, Manish started pursuing a Masters in Global sports management in South Korea. He attempted crowdfunding to raise money, but only received small amounts as help. He then applied for scholarships to support his education.
Mohana says that many athletes give up after a point, but Manish went ahead with his goal of pursuing a career in sports. “I have fitted prosthetics for about 50 athletes. Many lose hope and start bearing negative thoughts about their future in sports. But Manish has committed entirely and is pursuing higher studies. His achievements are commendable, and he is a family member for me now,” he adds.
Manish’s younger sister Kumkum says the family could not be more proud of him. “We are three siblings, and he is the only one pursuing a master’s degree. He has always been an active and disciplined person. The accident was a big setback for all of us. But he came out strong, and became an idol and a source of infinite strength for people around him,” she says, adding that many specially-abled persons approach Manish for guidance and motivation.
She adds that Manish has researched everything about sports in the Paralympic category. “He knows all the companies and the details of manufacturers and blades. Such is his determination and commitment towards sports,” Kumkum says.
Manish says he wants to help motivate people, specially-abled or otherwise, get into sports. He further aims to make the world more inclusive for the specially-abled. “I do not wish for other specially-abled persons to go through what I went to pursue education. I aim to initiate a merit-based eligibility test to bring equal opportunities in sports education,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu