Niranjan Mukundan – The fiercely competitive ‘amphibian’

January 10, 2018

At 22, Bangalore based para swimmer, Niranjan Mukundan’s achievements rival even those who have spent a lifetime in competitive swimming. Born with spina bifida and clubbed feet, Niranjan has undergone as many as 16 surgeries for his condition. Yet, he has let none of that come in his way as he went on to build up an impressive repertoire of accomplishments in competitive swimming; a sport he incidentally took up for its therapeutic value in managing his condition.

Niranjan Mukundan was awarded the prestigious Eklavya Award by the Karnataka Government 2016, and the national award by the Government of India.

Starting with winning medals at Paralympic nationals when he was barely 10, he won his first international medal in 2012, at the IDM German Swimming Championship in Berlin. But, that was merely a teaser of things to come. At the 2013 IWAS World Junior Games in Puerto Rico, he won 4 medals; in its 2014 edition at Stoke Mandeville, UK he won a whopping 8 medals, including 3 golds.

Bettering his previous performance at the 2015 IWAS World Junior Games at StadskanaalNetherlands, he won 10 medals including 7 golds and was crowned the Junior World Champion. He kept up to that tempo winning 8 medals, including 3 golds at the 2016 IWAS Junior World Games in PragueCzech Republic, where he also delivered the athletes’ oath on behalf of sportspersons from 35 participating nations – a rare prestige.

In recognition of his outstanding contribution to para swimming, Niranjan was awarded the prestigious Eklavya Award by the Karnataka Government 2016, and the national award for exceptional sporting achievements by the Government of India.

Presenting Niranjan Mukundan, whose life is an unstoppable tour de force.

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Do what you love, love what you do. But when you do something you don’t love, then you are doing something wrong.

Do you have a day job apart from swimming?

No, I’m a professional swimmer. I’m also pursuing an MBA in sports.

What is your proudest achievement and why?

All of my achievements are special to me as I represent my country and I win medals for it. But, my proudest achievement was when I was crowned Junior World Champion at the 2015 IWAS World Junior Games at StadskanaalNetherlands. It was very special to me because that was the last event I participated in as a junior. Incidentally, my coach and I did not go into the competition planning to set a record. We were just going with the flow, as I was out of practice for two months, battling injuries right before the competition. I am very happy about it because I am the first Indian to win ten medals in the World Championship. It’s a big milestone for me.

What is the most memorable moment of your professional life?

I remember an incident from the same Championship. There was this English coach who came up to me and said, “I’m scratching out your name from my list” He probably thought that I was not going to perform well as I’d just recovered from injury. When I asked him about it, he said, “You will not be able to give your best, as you’ve just about recovered. So, if I scratch out your name, it’s going to be one less competitor for my swimmers. And it will boost their confidence.” In reply, I just said, “Good luck.”

Barely three days later, I was crowned Junior World Champion. The same coach then came up to me and said, “Sorry, I should have scratched out my swimmer’s name instead of yours” That moment for me was bigger than winning a medal!

Why did you take up swimming?

I was born with Spina Bifida and have undergone sixteen major surgeries since birth. Doctors advised me to take up swimming for therapeutic reasons. Gradually I just fell in love with water, and it has just progressed from there.

What motivated you to become a professional swimmer?

I started swimming (aqua therapy) in 2002-2003. Six months thence, my head coach, Mr. John Christopher spotted my talent and advised my parents to enrol me into para sports. Initially, my parents were scared but then they let me explore my talent. I represented my home state, Karnataka at the Paralympic Nationals in Mumbai in 2003 and won a silver medal. After receiving support and love from all around, I wanted to perform even better and win laurels for the nation. So, that’s how I started off. I’m nicknamed ‘amphibian’, and, people say I can live on land and in water. I spend 8 to 9 hours in water each day. At this level, you must practice hard and work on your technique. Every day is a new day and every day there is something new to learn.

What excites you the most about swimming?

Swimming is not just a competitive sport. It is also a life skill. Knowing basic swimming can be of great help in times of uncertainty. Also, it helps you stay fit and healthy, as you use all parts of your body – hands, legs, and neck.

Tell us about your daily training schedule/routine?

I used to train in Bangalore, but the pool was closed a couple of years ago. Now I train in Thailand under a Spanish Olympic coach. My basic regimen comprises of three sessions of swimming and one  gym session each day. I train for three to three and a half hours in the morning, followed by another session in the afternoon to practice and learn techniques. In the evening, I work out at the gym and that is again followed by a swimming session.

How difficult was if for you to leave your family and move to Thailand?

It was very difficult because I’m a pure vegetarian. Finding the right food was a challenge in the beginning. But now I’m settled. Thailand is a big hub, and swimmers from the world over come here for training. Initial challenges apart, I’ve been fine. This is my first camp and I’ve been here for a while now.

How do you prepare yourself for competitions?

You need to train two things for every game; body and mind. I’m very injury prone, so when I’m not physically preparing, I am preparing myself mentally. Mental fitness is a very important part of overall fitness. Being positive and prepared on both fronts matter a lot. Over the past five years I’ve been getting a lot of support from Go Sports foundation, an NGO. Meraki are my peer partners since two years, and they keep a record of all my achievements and other things. Speedo India provides me my kit and costume. There is a team of professionals who help me prepare for every competition and help me stay calm and composed.

Who is your greatest support system and why?

My parents are my greatest support system. They have never said no to me when it comes to sports, or when I want to travel alone. I love travelling alone and exploring new places. My coach, who has been with me since 2003 – the time I started swimming – is another strong pillar of my support system. Go sports foundation started supporting me since 2012. They saw my character, my talent, my achievements and believed in my potential to accomplish big things in para swimming. They too are an important pillar of support for me.

How did the society support you in your endeavours?

Incidentally, there were many who thought I won’t achieve much given my condition. In fact, there were people who thought I won’t even be able to even stand, let alone swim, because I was virtually paralysed till the age of four, and my parents had to physically carry me. People thought this kid won’t be able to do anything due to birth disability and the multiple surgeries he had to endure. But today, the very same people congratulate me and my parents for my achievements. It feels good to see the change of heart, and for being able to prove that disability need not be a limiting factor; but instead it could be a catalyst for achieving bigger things.

What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

Initially, for me to just stand and walk was a big challenge. But then I slowly started doing things; Little by little, one step at a time, all adding up to something significant gradually. I started learning to drive two-wheelers and cars. Nobody ever thought I will be able to drive a normal car, but today I drive just that! I am an adventure freak, I love travelling by roads. I like exploring new places and meeting new people. It gives me a lot of happiness. In fact, I am soon going on a cross country expedition on the golden quadrilateral.

Is there any one strong personality trait which you believe has contributed significantly to your success?

People tell me I’m a very positive person. I would say, I believe in myself and move forward because every day is a new start.

Would you describe yourself as fairly competitive?

Of course! I’m not fairly competitive. I’m fiercely competitive!

How do you keep yourself calm and composed when things don’t work in your favour?

I follow a certain routine. A part of which is listening to loud music just before a competition. It helps me stay calm as it shuts out ambient noise, and I have nothing on my mind to distract me. But when I lose a race, I cry out loudly so that it is done and dusted there itself, and I don’t carry the regret home. I work on my negatives and train for the next event. When I win, I celebrate it with my friends and family by hanging out with them.

Tell us the one advice of your coach that you have always held dear?

My coach is my role model. He never accorded me any special treatment or privilege. He has always treated me at par with my able bodied compatriots. I believe this has helped me become stronger. It has boosted my confidence and inculcated the self-belief that I am not less than anyone else.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

My biggest inspiration is Rahul Dravid. I was very fortunate to meet him, talk to him about my goals and have him as a mentor. He is my hero since childhood.

What has been your life lesson from sports?

It has taught me two things; patience and perseverance. You must take your victory and losses equally. I’ve learned to balance them. There have been times when I lost in events I participated in, and thought of quitting. But then patience and perseverance take you higher and forward.

What are your future goals?

I’m taking one event at a time. I bagged a bronze in the last Asian Games, and this time I want to improve my timings and performance and win a gold in the Asian Games, 2018. My ultimate goal is to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics.

What are the areas you want to improve upon to achieve your future goals?

I’m a bit injury prone. Whenever I have an injury it takes me a week to recover. I am consulting with a lot of medical experts and working on reducing my recovery time.

What message would you like to give to the people at large, as there is limited awareness about para sports in the country.

It’s not like earlier. Many people are aware of para sports today, though there is still a long way to go in terms of interest and understanding. If you look at the past decade, the Indian para team has been competing and earning laurels at the highest levels internationally. Para athletes have in fact done better than the abled athletes. If you look at the recent Rio 2016 records, Indian athletes won two medals while para athletes won four. Corporates and the government too are increasingly coming forward to support para athletes. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go.

What change would you like to see in the para sports landscape in the country?

We need infrastructure that is disabled friendly. Our stadiums, clubs and academies must be accessable and user friendly for the differently abled. Such an ecosystem will give a strong boost to para athletics. And I speak on behalf of all para athletes. The government too must come up with initiatives such as cash awards and recognitions, which will motivate us.

What message do you have for young Indian sports talent?

I would say ‘do what you love, love what you do’. Because when you do what you love and love what you do, there is nothing that can stop you from achieving your fondest dreams. But when you do something you don’t love, then you are doing something wrong.

We know of your adventure and travel streak. Are there any places you would love to visit?

I like travelling by road and train. Once, I crossed the borders of Poland and Germany by road. Another time I took a train from Italy to Switzerland to explore Europe, instead of a plane. I shared with you my plan to drive across the golden quadrilateral soon.

What passion would you follow, if it were not swimming?

I am an adventure freak, so probably I would have been car rally driver.

To know more about Niranjan Mukundan, visit his profile

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