A spinal tumour left Deepa paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair in 1999. But she did not let her disability deter her passion to go out and pursue adventure sports. She became an award-winning athlete, record-breaking swimmer, performed bike stunts, and did everything she dreamt of in her life.
She is an accomplished swimmer, adventure sports player, international athlete, biker, and entrepreneur. And this Limca Book record holder has done all of this while being confined to a wheelchair. Meet 45-year-old Deepa Malik, who refuses to let her disability come in the way of her dreams.
An ‘army kid,’ Deepa’s life had been full of thrills and adventures growing up. “I was always an outdoor person. I would do unconventional things ever since I was a child. Other children used to sit on the swing and I would stand on it and hang on to the ropes. I loved bikes and even got married because my husband supported my passion for biking. You can say I got convinced to get married at the early age of 20 just for a bike,” Deepa laughs.
But her life took a twist when a spinal tumour confined her to a wheelchair 15 years ago. After three tumour surgeries and 183 stitches between her shoulder blades, Deepa became paraplegic (paralysed from waist down).
This was a very difficult phase in Deepa’s life as her husband was fighting in the Kargil war and both her daughters were young. In fact, her elder daughter Devika required special care since she was a case of congenital hemiplegia, a unilateral motor disability that made some parts of her body non-functional.
“It was a tough time indeed. But being from an army background, we are raised to handle such situations. We are prepared for our husbands not being around. That time, being alone gave me more strength to fight with the situation because my husband was fighting in a war. And it was important for at least one of us to be alive for our daughters. I had no other choice but to accept it and get over it,” says Deepa.
The family won both wars. Her husband returned safe from Kargil and Deepa got rid of her tumours, although she now had to be in a wheelchair all her life. It took her three years to accept the fact that her condition was permanent but she was finally able to do so with her family’s support.
Not willing to spend the rest of her life in a closed room, this fighter decided to chase her dreams despite her condition.
Deepa began to pursue her first love, biking, earnestly. She joined the Himalayan Motorsports Association (H.M.A.) and Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (F.M.S.C.I.). She biked 1,700 km in eight days in sub-zero temperatures, sustaining herself in extreme climates with oxygen shortage at an altitude of 18,000 feet.
Though Deepa went on to achieve many extraordinary things, success did not come easy to her. To follow her passion for biking, Deepa needed an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), also known as a quad bike. Deepa could not afford an ATV due to its high price but she wasn’t one to give up easily. She found a sponsor through a newspaper appeal and had the bike modified to suit her condition.
Deepa got her motorsport licence only after her doctor had certified her health. She also did many test drives on off-road circuits to check her reflexes and her vehicle’s mechanics.
Already excelling in the field of biking, Deepa started swimming to strengthen her shoulders so that she could perform better in biking. Hardly did she know that one day she would be breaking records in this sport.
She became the first female athlete to represent India at the Paralympics, since the country’s debut at the Games in 1968. Deepa won the Arjuna Award in 2012 for her performance in swimming. She has 54 national gold medals and 13 international medals in various sports including swimming, javelin throw and shot put.
In fact, she has registered her name four times in the Limca Book of Records for her sporting achievements. This includes crossing a 1 km stretch of the Yamuna river against the current in 2008, covering 58 kms by riding a special bike in 2009, doing the longest (Chennai-Delhi 3,278 kms) pan-India drive by a paraplegic women in 2013, and driving across nine high altitude passes in nine days on Ladakh’s highest motorable roads. She was the first woman in the world with her disability to attempt a journey like this in 2011.
“My journey in sports was difficult. Especially because I came from a very different background from others. I was 36 when I started my career in sports so there was obviously an age gap. Of course funds and infrastructure are an issue when it comes to para sports but above that fitting in was also a big challenge for me since most of the athletes came from different social backgrounds. The majority of them are from rural areas and here I was from an urban family,” she says.
But gradually, with her impressive performances, Deepa did not just win the nation’s heart but also played a crucial role in conveying the needs of paraplegic athletes to the authorities.
“Pursuing sports has given me a new identity. I was tired of people looking at me with sympathy. I wanted to prove a point that not being able to walk does not change anything. I am still alive and kicking. All these awards and recognitions have helped me to erase that ‘disability’ part from my personality,” says Deepa.
Living her life on her own terms, Deepa says, “The only disease I suffer from is happiness.”
Deepa has her eyes set on participating in the Rio Paralympics in 2016. She follows a strict schedule of practice four times a week. This is followed by her biking adventures on weekends.
She stays in Gurgaon alone since she has to practice on a regular basis, which is not possible in Ahmednagar where her family stays. She visits them often and is living an independent and successful life.
“One thing that has kept me going is my will to go out. When I first found out about my condition I knew that this was not me – I cannot be on a bed all my life. I had to go out and I did,” says Deepa.
Recently, Deepa Malik added yet another feather to her cap at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix 2018.
The athlete participated in a discus event in Asian Ranking 53 category and won the gold medal. In the combined category event of 51/52/53, Deepa attempted her career-best shot of 8.01 meters. Here, she secured the second place.
“I have not played discus earlier or learned it as a skilled game; this is a new event for me. I participated in the competition after practising only for three-four weeks. However, I not only qualified for the Asian Games but also secured the second place in the combined category according to the point system,” Deepa told ANI.
Currently, Deepa ranks first in Asia in her category. The win means that Deepa is now qualified for the Asian Para Games, 2018.
Deepa is excitedly looking forward to the Asian Para Games and said, “This [the win] has truly boosted my morale. If I continue to develop my skills in the game for the next six months, until October, then I can secure a good position for myself in the Asian Games.”
To know more about this inspiring lady’s journey, check out her website.