Swimming against the tide, Niranjan's challenged spirit never sank

He has undergone 16 surgeries after he was born with a condition known as Spina Bifida that left him with lumps on his lower back, clubbed feet and his right leg paralysed. But today, using determination and dedication to fuel his pursuit of excellence as a para-swimmer, Bangalore’s Mukundan Niranjan has made all of India sit up and take note of him.

Niranjan’s journey from JP Nagar in Bangalore to the world stage is a remarkable saga of self-belief and relentlessness. Realising his intellectual faculties were not affected by his medical condition, Niranjan has chased dreams – not only in the world of sport but also in academics where he has his eyes set on becoming a chartered accountant.

After some early surgeries, doctors suggested he to take up either horse-riding or swimming as part of the physiotherapy. “I was afraid of animals and I loved water, so the choice was easy,” Niranjan says. “I learnt swimming in a couple of weeks’ time and was able to get from the shallow end to the deep end sooner than most beginners.”

Before long, P. Munivenkatappa Swim Centre coach John Christopher was advising Niranjan’s parents Lakshmi and R Mukundan to encourage the youngster to look at swimming as a competitive pursuit rather than merely recreational or as part of the rehabilitation process. “My parents were scared since it was tough for me to stand up, let alone walk,” he recalls.

When he set off, many told his parents and his coach that they were perhaps being unfair to Niranjan. ‘He is unable to stand and walk, let alone move,’ they said. It used to pinch me a lot just as it does when society pushes anyone down. However, I took it positively and told myself that when they talk about para swimming in India, they should speak of me,” he says.

Fortunately for Niranjan, John Christopher was much more than a coach. “He has been a fatherly figure, a mentor and shown me the right path in life. He continues to inspire,” Niranjan says, fondly detailing his relationship with his coach. “However, he has been strict and never treated me as a differently-abled swimmer in the group that has trained under him.

“I felt I was on top of the world when I got the National Award from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in December 2015. It is amazing to be recognised as India’s best. I didn’t have hope, though I won four medals at Puerto Rico in 2013, eight at Stoke Mandeville in 2014 and 10 at Stadskanaal in the Netherlands in 2015 in the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Junior Games,” Niranjan confesses.

“Athletes from all States submitted nominations and I really only expected to be picked among the final nominations for India’s best sportsperson. When I got a call from the Ministry in Delhi, it was a sweet surprise… a shocker. I had to leave for Poland on December 1 but I rescheduled my departure to be able to receive the award myself,” he says. “It spurs me to do better.”

A lot of things have changed but there are some that stand out in his mind. “I remember 10 years ago dad had to sell a plot of land to be able to send me to compete overseas. The man who had come to buy the plot went away without completing the deal since he saw me in bed and said I was crippled,” Niranjan recalls. A decade later, he called up my father to say sorry he said that and that I had become an India star. I cherish that. There are a lot of people who said I could not do things. I am glad they have turned around now.”

At 21, Niranjan has already shown what boundless human spirit can do when it sets its focus sharp and backs that with determination and discipline. There is pride. Yet, modesty takes over and he reminds himself the journey is still incomplete. There are important things to do, dreams left to be pursued, goals yet to be achieved. “Winning, in my dictionary, is always improving,” he says.

There can be no disagreement with that.

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