Orphaned as children, these intellectually-challenged athletes make it big at Special Olympics

SOS Children's Village in Khajuri Kalan has been training children with special needs in several games, not just to hone athletic skills, but to boost personality development

Shruti and Manimeghlai, athletes from SOS Children' Village who participated in Special Olympics for disabled people. (Source: PR Handout)

From winning a silver medal in 2014 National Championship of Cycling to representing India in 2015 and 2019 World Summer Games organised by Special Olympics, in Abu Dhabi, Shruti has won many accolades. She started playing sports in school and later received formal training to participate in several international events. But even after securing many victories, she does not want to stop. Her aim is to win more and more medals. Equally attractive is the idea of flying abroad in an airplane.

The now 23-year-old Shruti is deaf and mute and intellectually challenged. She was brought to SOS Children’s Village (an organisation that provides home to children without parental care) after she was found abandoned at the Faridabad Railway Station. In 2007, she joined the SOS village in Khajuri Kalan, in Bhopal, the only SOS village for children with special needs.

Shruti (Source: PR Handout)

“In this SOS village, we have a total of 104 children who are suffering from some sort of disability. Six of our children represented our country recently in international games,” village director Deepak Saxena tells Currently, the Special Olympic-trained coaches are preparing 23 children who have been shortlisted for five events at the games to be held in Germany in 2023.

Not every child with special needs can be trained in sports. “The children undergo an assessment and are then assigned a category of sports depending on their abilities. There are some categories in Special Olympics which see the participation of those with moderate to severe disability like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder and so on,” Saxena tells the outlet.

While the SOS team helps the children hone athletic skills, the overall training has greater purpose. “These Special Olympic games emphasise on socialisation and to help these children realise that they are no less than others,” says coach Pratibha Shrivastava. She recalls how Shruti was in tears after winning her first prize at a local event. “She sat on the ground and when she came back, she showed her medal to each and every member. She soon realised she wanted to pursue sports.”

The training process also puts the children into a routine — they are made to got to bed on time, exercise and eat a healthy diet, all while learning new skills. “I was 14 when [coach] madam taught me to cycle. I wake up at 6 am, do chores and then cycle for two hours. In the evening, I practise for three hours,” Manimeghlai, a 19-year-old girl with moderate intellectual disability, who was brought to SOS village at the age of three, shares.

Manimeghlai (Source: PR Handout)

Manimeghlai’s feats are no less. Trained in cycling, floor ball, football, basketball and running, the athlete represented Madhya Pradesh in the National Championship of Floor ball in 2016 and won a gold medal. Later, she won gold medals in national championships of cycling. She also won a gold medal in cycling at the 2019 World Summer Games. Talking about the experience, she says, “I learned so many things about exercise and cycling. And I also made many friends.”

That is exactly what these games are meant for, Pratibha states. “Children not only learn how to be physically and mentally fit but they also pick up so many social skills in the process.”

“Such opportunities contribute a lot in boosting the children’s self-confidence. It gives them the much-needed exposure and promotes inclusion,” adds Saxena,

Kiran, who won a silver medal in 2014 National Championship of Badminton and a bronze medal in 2016 Floor ball National Championship, among other honours, expresses (as interpreted by Pratibha), “I loved running as a child. I would watch videos of other children running and that inspired me a lot. I wanted to do the same–to win a medal and make everyone proud.” Kiran is speech-impaired.

Kiran (Source: PR Handout)

Saxena further shares how sports has brought about significant positive changes in the children who earlier had “behavioral issues”. One of the major challenges in training the children is that they are very “moody”. “You cannot force them to do something against their wishes. But I try to keep motivating them by showing them videos or sharing inspirational stories. And then I myself participate in a particular game with them and help develop their skills in the process. There were times when these children would not turn up for practice. Our counsellor would sit with them for hours to motivate them,” says coach Pratibha.

Coach Pratibha Shrivastava (Source: PR Handout)

Sumanta Kar, secretary general, SOS Children’s Villages of India, says that learn to focus on their strengths through sports–those “that they never knew they had, and how to optimise these”. “The rest of the world learns to look at such children’s capabilities differently.”

What are these athletes’ future plans? Manimeghlai, for instance, has been appointed to train and motivate other children in the SOS communities in sports, including fitness and diet tips. Kiran and Shruti also aspire to be coaches one day.

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