Paraplegic Swimmer

Swimming against the odds: The unbreakable spirit of Shams Aalam

Indian paraplegic swimmer Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh, who won four gold medals at the Indian Open Paraplegic Swimming Championship in 2018, speaks to Soulveda in an exclusive conversation.
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Sometimes life tests us with difficulties that can change the course of our destiny. These are the moments that test our resilience and dedication and eventually define our path to success. For some, adversities can be too harrowing to deal with, while others triumph over them and pursue their dreams.

Paraplegic swimmer Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh is one such individual who overcame all odds in his pursuit of success. Aalam’s life changed at the age of 24 when he developed a benign tumour in his lower back that left him paralysed below his chest. But that didn’t stop him from soaring high and winning numerous feats in his sports career. A four-time gold medalist, he holds the record for the longest open sea swim by a paraplegic person. Moreover, he has bagged 15 medals at the Indian National Para-Swimming Championships.

“Sports is special and important to me as it helped me to keep going in life,” says Aalam with a firm determination in his voice while speaking to Soulveda in an exclusive conversation. In a freewheeling interview, Aalam shares his story, and how he overcame all odds to carve his path as a decorated swimmer.

At 24, you discovered you had a tumour in your spinal cord. How did that incident change your life? 

It was a heartbreaking moment for me. I was the only person from my village (Rathaus in Madhubani District, Bihar) who had completed engineering and my family and others had a lot of expectations from me. They wanted to celebrate my achievement, but this incident happened in 2010 and nobody could digest it. At that time, I was fit as I was practising karate. Unfortunately, even the doctors could not explain the reason behind this tumour, which caused compression in my spine. My first surgery was unsuccessful and the tumour wasn’t 100 percent removed. Later, through another surgery and lab report, we found that it was a benign tumour.

I was really frustrated and I didn’t know what to do. During the day, I showed strength in front of everyone but I used to cry at night when I was alone. I did research on the internet to find out a cure and medicines for this ailment. But slowly, I started accepting that there’s no cure and I have to live my life in a wheelchair. It took me almost one and a half years to stop crying, get comfortable, and find ways to continue living my life.

How did you motivate yourself to stay strong and continue despite all odds?

Once you are a sportsperson, you are always a sportsperson. You can’t stay quiet. But in life, it’s not possible to win every day. This is what life is and we have to accept ourselves the way we are and move forward. Because of this incident, it took a lot of time for me to learn this truth.

Many people say that empty pockets can teach us life lessons. It also happened to me, when after receiving support, even close relatives distanced themselves, leaving me in a do-or-die situation. In 2012, I started a job at a call center in Mumbai with a minimal salary but it was a life-changing moment for me because I understood that I can move from one place to another, interact with others, and earn. Whatever the salary, at least I could live with dignity because I was not dependent on someone else and could fulfil my desires myself.

Who inspired you the most to go ahead with your career despite your condition?

My mother kept me motivated during this ordeal. She told me, “If one door has closed, then Allah will open a hundred doors for you.” She was my source of motivation and inspiration.

Later, in 2012, I got the opportunity to meet a few athletes such as Rajaram Ghag, Oliver D’Souza among others at the Paraplegic Foundation’s National Games. That’s when I realised that sports can also be played in a wheelchair. Rajaram Ghag completed the English Channel, which is the Mount Everest of swimming. So, if someone living with a disability can accomplish that feat, that is really inspiring. That was the moment I started swimming and the rest is history. I thought even if I can’t play karate, I can still focus on swimming.

Sports require immense mental dedication and attention. What is your mantra to stay focussed at all times?

Sports helped me understand who I am and the world. Especially karate that helped me understand the ups and downs of life. I still apply the lessons I learned during my karate days. Many people told me that my condition is due to playing karate but I don’t think that’s true. Whatever I am today is only because of karate. Sports is special and important to me as it helped me keep going in life. After playing sports for 20-25 years, I can tell you that it is not something that others tell you to do. You play it for your satisfaction. The goal that you set in your mind plays a vital role to keep you motivated.

I used to stay in Dharavi, Mumbai, which is very congested, and every day I had to motivate myself to go out. I used to ask people to help me reach the swimming pool. This is a difficult journey, and if that happens to you, no one will support you to do what you want.

Work-life balance is a hard thing to achieve in our fast-paced lives. How do you maintain this equilibrium?

I am thankful for everything that sports has given me. But at the end of the day, I had to take care of finances too. So I started doing some jobs. It’s difficult to balance work and a sports career, but I know that I am not going to become a billionaire by doing a 9-5 job. I wish I could play more sports and do something in the sports industry. Money doesn’t motivate me, but sports does. I hope that the pandemic situation will improve and I can focus on sports to do something better for my country.

There are days, when I feel like quitting my job, going back to sports, and start from the basics. I remember the days in 2017-18 when I was not earning. I was focussing on sports and had a minimal source of income. I had a different kind of happiness and goal that motivated me and helped me going.

As someone who has met with a life-changing accident, can you tell what uplifts a person to succeed in life?

As sportspersons, we all face challenges such as finances, or lack of time. Even if you wish to play regular sports, it’s difficult to manage time as a working professional. But if you have a dream, then nobody can stop you. No one can motivate you except yourself. Time heals everything, even difficult situations.

The daily life of people with disabilities (PwDs) is rife with challenges. What’s your advice for them to develop inner strength?       

Believing in yourself is not a one-day process. It takes time. I have faith in God and I believe that if he closes one door, he also opens others. If you have the desire to do something, you can do it even if it may take time. To the general people, I want to say that it is your social responsibility to raise your voices to create accessibility for PwDs. The government and society should create disabled-friendly infrastructure and more employment opportunities.

  • Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh is an Indian para swimmer based in Gurugram, Haryana. He rebuilt his life after a benign tumour left him wheelchair-bound. He was featured in the Limca Book of World Records and holds the world record in Longest Open Sea Swimming by a paraplegic person. Additionally, he was also named in Asia’s Top 300 Influential People’s list by The New York Press News Agency for the year 2020.

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