WHEN

Tehelka - - PARALYMPICS 2012 -

SHARATH GAYAK­WAD was born with a de­formed left arm, his par­ents be­lieved they would spend their lives teach­ing their son how to be nor­mal. As he glides now through an azure pool, the first In­dian swim­mer to qual­ify for the Par­a­lympics, the 21-year-old has long tran­scended nor­mal. Gayak­wad is now in the league of the ex­tra­or­di­nary.

In the past seven years, Ben­galuru-based Gayak­wad has won 40 na­tional and 30 in­ter­na­tional medals. “In the be­gin­ning, my mother would cook my favourite food for me ev­ery time I won a medal, but I guess now we are all sort of used to it,” he smiles. At his first com­pet­i­tive swim­ming event — the 2003 Na­tional Games — Gayak­wad won four gold medals at the age of 12. He re­mem­bers be­ing pet­ri­fied in the months lead­ing up to the event, but once he en­tered the water, “ev­ery­thing be­came re­ally good”.

Watch­ing Gayak­wad’s ef­fort­less progress through the pool, one could for­get that there is sym­me­try in swim­ming — arms cut through water; legs pro­pel the body across it.

While it is al­most never a lack of love or pride that causes the par­ents of dif­fer­ently-abled chil­dren to fear for their fu­ture, there is al­ways a sense of panic at imag­in­ing the asym­me­try of their lives. For­tu­nately for Gayak­wad’s par­ents, his teach­ers at Lit­tle Flower Public School ( LPFS) showed few signs of trep­i­da­tion — they in­sisted he par­tic­i­pate in all the same ac­tiv­i­ties as the rest of the class.

At age nine, this in­cluded swim­ming — the only time that Gayak­wad’s fa­ther, Ma­hade­varao, felt com­pelled to re­mind the fac­ulty that his son was miss­ing an arm. “He went to the prin­ci­pal to re­quest ex­emp­tion for Sharath — there was the very real fear of him drown­ing. But the prin­ci­pal in­sisted that since the boy had per­formed at par with his peers at ev­ery­thing else, pre­vent­ing him from swim­ming would only make him feel iso­lated. He in­sisted that the coaches knew what they were do­ing,” re­calls his mother, Bhagya.

A de­formed arm has meant that Gayak­wad has had to work on de­vel­op­ing ‘equi­lib­rium’, some­thing that fourlimbed peo­ple have nat­u­rally, by strength­en­ing his shoul­ders, legs and core. “It is like pad­dling on a boat with one oar. With­out this ex­tra strength, he would swim in a cir­cu­lar mo­tion in­stead of push­ing him­self for­ward,” ex­plains John Christopher (41), his coach for the past seven years. “John Sir”, as Sharath calls him, spot­ted Gayak­wad at the LPFS train­ing pro­gramme over the sum­mer of 2003, when he re­alised the boy could be groomed into a com­pet­i­tive ath­lete. The fact that he had never trained a para-ath­lete did not faze Christopher; he does not treated Gayak­wad any dif­fer­ently from other ath­letes, and Gayak­wad never asks for any ex­emp­tions from ex­er­cise or dis­ci­pline ei­ther.

As a nine-year-old still learn­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween see­ing him­self as ‘dif­fer­entlyabled’ as op­posed to ‘dis­abled’, Gayak­wad re­mem­bers what trou­bled wa­ters were like. “There were days of in­tense dis­ap­point­ment. There were class­mates who passed com­ments. I spent a lot of time wish­ing that I had both hands. But noth­ing could be done about it,” he

Gayak­wad had to train to de­velop ‘equi­lib­rium’. ‘With­out that he’d be swim­ming

in a cir­cu­lar mo­tion, like a boat with one oar,’ says

his coach

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