Saturday Features

Second coming

  • Differently abled athletes are shining at international competitions, but their achievements have largely gone unacknowledged
- Sandesh Ghimire
‘As a wheelchair basketball player, you use your hand twice as much—to roll the wheelchair and to shoot—but we don’t get even half the respect’

Dec 2, 2017-If you ask Himal Aryal to introduce himself, he will tell you that he is an avid Real Madrid fan or he will show you his glass paintings that look like flowers embroidered  on a piece of cloth.  However, he will forget to mention the one thing you might be most curious about, “Why is he in a wheel chair?”

“My patrolling vehicle was ambushed in Pandryang, Makwanpur in November, 2003, and I broke my T-12 vertebra,” Aryal, a warrant officer (Subedar) in the Nepal Army, says matter-of-factly. Fourteen years after the incident, he recounts the tale of how he sustained his spinal injury without a trace of despair in his voice. “I have an identity today because I am in a wheelchair.” 

Aryal is the captain of the Nepal Wheelchair Basketball Team, which won the recently-concluded International Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. Aryal is also a weightlifter, a cricket and a taekwondo player, and over the years he has represented Nepal in several differently-abled sports championships. 

As the captain of the wheelchair basketball team, he guides his teammates with a confidence in his voice and a posture that is reflective of an army man.  But that has not always been the case.  “After the ambush, I was in the hospital for four years and I had lost hope of living a proper life. 

When I went to my village for the first time, people recognised the wheelchair before they acknowledged me,” Aryal said as we chatted at a basketball court at the Chhauni Barracks, “I was lucky, despite my spinal cord injury, my girlfriend was willing to marry me and the Nepal Army’s continued support has been a great moral boost as well.”  

Aryal says that had it not been for the time he spent at the Nepal Army’s rehabilitation centre in Bhandarkhal, he would have never overcome the mental hurdles required to become an athlete.  At the rehab centre, he started painting—a hobby he continues till this day—but it was sports that truly helped him boost his confidence. Then, since turning to professional sports in 2010, he has not looked back. “It took me seven years to realise that life can be normal in a wheelchair too,” he says. 

Across town, Tina Maharjan, the captain of the women’s wheelchair basketball team, also agrees that being involved in athletics has helped her gain confidence. This year’s International Wheelchair Basketball Tournament was the first competition that Tina participated in and she says that she is “filled with overwhelming joy” when Nepal outscored Bangladesh 32-16 in the finals.

Tina lost her left leg to polio at the tender age of one. And though she was always considered an outcast in schools, she says that she is lucky to have had the support of her family, who never made her feel any different than her two sisters. 

“I was the youngest in the family, but I was the first to get married,” Maharjan shares to drive her point home, “I have a supportive husband as well. But before I started 

playing basketball I never had the confidence to smile unapologetically and I never believed that I could be somebody.” 

For the two captains, sport is a luxury they have been able to enjoy because of the financial support they receive from their families. 

But other than the lack of proper financial incentive that athletes in Nepal generally suffer from, wheelchair athletes have other hurdles to overcome. 

For people who suffer life-altering physical disability, Aryal and Maharjan say, being involved in sports is the best way to get over mental barriers and speed up 

their rehabilitation. Eventually the players develop a serious athletic spirit, Aryal says, which carries over into all aspects of their life. He though is quick to emphasise that most people never explore the option because of their poor socio-economic conditions.

Despite overcoming such odds, however, both captains lament how differently-abled sport competitions have always been viewed as ‘lesser’ events by fans, sports administration and the media alike. “As a wheelchair basketball player, you use your hand twice as much—to roll the wheelchair and to shoot—but we don’t get even half the respect,” Maharjan shares, “Had the regular national team won an international competition, the entire country would be talking about little else for a whole week.” 

Aryal says that the differently-abled athletes have a greater desire to prove themselves, and are driven to practice even when there are no coaches available, as is the case with national wheelchair cricket team. For the past year, Aryal has assumed the role of a player-cum-coach for the team.  

“A medal and international recognition for the nation is the same, whether it is brought by able individuals or by people that are differently abled,” Aryal says, “Yet our achievements are not acknowledged as a proper sport by many.” 

According to Aryal, during the recently-concluded international tourney, the organisers were selling tickets to the games, but it was only the family members of the athletes that showed up for the matches. “If we don’t issue tickets, people think that it is not worthwhile to attend. But when there are tickets, people do not consider wheelchair games as important sporting events,” he says. 

Were there greater support from the fans and the government, the two captains believe that Nepal has a good shot at being an accomplished team, across various sports, in Asia. “There is little hope of Nepal bagging a medal at the Olympics anytime soon,” Aryal says, “But with more all-round support, could Nepal win its first para-Olympic medal? Would that achievement be any lesser? It is all a matter of perspective.” 

Published: 02-12-2017 08:31

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