Deepa Malik this year became the first female athlete from India to win a silver medal at the Paralympics. With a personal best throw of 4.61 metres, she won the silver medal in the F-53 category (which includes athletes with full ability to use their shoulder, elbow and wrist) for shot put. She spoke with Reuters about what she thinks India’s Paralympians and athletes need to succeed on the world sports stage.
“I was aiming for the gold. But the silver is a happy victory,” Malik said in an interview. “I was confident and calm during the event. But there was a sense of being answerable to the government, who had invested in me. I owed this to the country.”
Malik, 45, is one of the oldest contestants from India to participate in the Paralympics. A discus and javelin thrower with an expertise in shot put, she was left out of the all-male contingent that went from India to the London Paralympics in 2012. Her bid to participate in the Rio 2016 shot put event was challenged in the Delhi High Court by discus thrower Karamjyoti Dalal because of the limited quota that the Indian contingent had. However, both the women were able to participate at the Rio Paralympics in the shot put and discus throw events.
Colonel Bikram Singh Malik, a retired army officer, is Malik’s trainer and also her husband. He was by her side when she won the medal. Deep Malik comes from an athletic family. She played cricket and basketball in her youth before a spinal tumour and three surgeries confined her to the wheelchair.
Key to her success and India’s success in sport are establishing and maintaining a culture of sport. “Both of PV Sindhu’s parents are sportspersons. Abhinav Bindra had a shooting range in his backyard. We have to cultivate sports talent from a nursery age, if we want talent to nourish.”
Malik is also a swimmer. Among her achievements there included swimming against the current in the Yamuna river for 1 km at Allahabad. Her name is mentioned in the Limca Book of Records for this achievement.
Yet, she chose shot put and javelin as her specialties. Paralysed chest down, Malik must lie down to change into a swimsuit. “There are currently no such provisions at the training centres in India. This is a huge challenge, especially for women para-athletes. This is why I concentrate on shotput and javelin.”
Over the years, Malik has participated in several bike and car rallies. She is the first paraplegic athlete to scale nine high-altitude passes in Ladakh in a customized SUV car. She also appeared in the MTV Roadies reality show, and rode a bike along with actor John Abraham.
“In some ways I’m very lucky. I come from a well-educated urban background, and am well-versed in speaking on public platforms. But only after I did these rallies and made popular culture appearances was I considered as viable for sponsorship. Corporations are gradually becoming more aware of the arena of para-athletics.”
Malik found India’s Paralympics team this year well-managed and on par with the global organisation. However, the training facilities and infrastructure in India leave a lot to be desired. Deepa has plans of opening a training facility for athletes like her who need specialised training and care.
“We need a facility which teaches para-athletes how to manage their body, how to use diapers, and a lot more. The planning also needs to include how the athlete can commute to and from the facility. As of now, Sonipat is the only training centre which has a ramp facility. The training and medical staff must be sensitised towards the special needs of each sportsperson.”
Malik hopes that India’s celebration of para-athletics doesn’t die down after the celebration of the nation’s performance at the Rio Paralympics. “There is a huge social taboo against people with disability, and that needs to be broken. I want people to know that they shouldn’t let their age, ability, gender or family obligation block their aspirations,” she said.
Editing by: Robert MacMillan