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Leap of Faith

Around 3am on September 19,a group of over 50 people gathered at the Bangalore International Airport to receive a young man arriving after a week-long trip to Paris.

Written by Johnson TA | New Delhi | Published: September 30, 2012 1:21:46 am

Around 3am on September 19,a group of over 50 people gathered at the Bangalore International Airport to receive a young man arriving after a week-long trip to Paris.

Around 3am on September 19,a group of over 50 people gathered at the Bangalore International Airport to receive a young man arriving after a week-long trip to Paris. Kumar Manikandan,26,had gone as a polio-afflicted resident from the slums of Rajajinagar,Bangalore and returned as a world champion.

Among the people gathered was his father,a carpenter,who had for years been asking his eldest son to get a real job. There was his mother,who earned a living making incense sticks,and did not quite understand how climbing rocks and walls could fill empty stomachs. She wondered if the gold medal her son won had real gold in it.

Manikandan won the gold at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Paraclimbing World Championship held in Paris this month. He competed against 23 climbers with arthritis,as well as neurological and physical disabilities. Sport climbing has evolved from outdoor rock climbing into a demanding sport,which requires a combination of gymnastic skills,physical and mental strength. Competition walls are 15-metre high and the number of holds can vary from 30 to 100 depending on the level of difficulty. Contestants are given a fixed time to climb to the top across a technically set route.

Manikandan was introduced to the sport as a 16-year-old during an adventure camp for children organised by his school. With a polio-struck leg that left him with a lifelong limp,he put his body on the line to try his hand at the sport. To start with,he would lift his weak leg with his hands and place them in climbing holds on the wall at the government-run General Thimmaiah National Academy for Adventure (GETHNAA). His passion was fuelled by coaches who encouraged him to return to the wall again and again. The 5ft-tall athlete has now evolved into a pocket dynamo,competing often with regular climbers and pulling off some of the hardest moves in the sport. He also trains some of India’s best young climbers and is slowly becoming a flag bearer for the sport in India. “Climbing is the best thing to have happened to me. It is fun. It keeps me strong,it keeps me focused. I also like competition,” he says.

While many may have doubted his abilities in the past,including coaches,the young man says he always knew he was going to be a champion. “When I first came to a wall in 2002,one of the coaches was making a documentary on climbing. I remember telling him that I would be a world champion one day. That dream has come true,” says Manikandan.

His journey to Paris involved a long struggle. “He had entered the competition but we saw him struggling to raise funds. Some of us spoke to the administrators at GETHNAA and they agreed to give him Rs 50,000. The administrators spoke to friends in the Karnataka State Police who sponsored his air tickets,” says Umashankar,49,chief instructor and programme coordinator at the academy. He is one among several coaches to have taken Manikandan under his wing over the years. “My parents,my students’ families,and close friends all pitched in. The entrance fee was paid by the Indian Mountaineering Federation,” says Manikandan. Umashankar helped him get a room at Bangalore’s Kanteerava Stadium. Through his three-month training at the stadium,his exercise regimen included jogging,pull-ups,push-ups,crunches,weight training,endurance training,climbing routes and dynos — jumping from one climbing hold to another if they are out of reach.

The World Climbing Championships were being held for the first time as a biennial contest and paraclimbing was a part of it. It was part of the International Federation for Sport Climbing’s efforts to convince the International Olympic Committee that sport climbing was worthy of Olympics status.

In Paris,participants were given points on the basis of the extent of physically disability and then marked for timing and height scaled. Manikandan had one of the lowest points for disability. In the qualifiers,he finished fourth,and went on to win the semifinals and finals. A climber from Brazil,Raphael Nishimura who had lower disability points than Manikandan and who won the first qualification round,finished second.

Climbing is also how Manikandan,who has studied till Class X,earns his living. As an instructor,he is sought after by academic institutions and corporates. “Initially life was not very easy. I began as an instructor at adventure camps organised by companies and schools. In 2006,when I started training people,I began to earn better. I can even support my family now,” he says. Manikandan’s family is oblivious to his fame. “My parents have never watched me compete or seen a video of me; for them it does not matter. They just know that I am a sportsperson,who climbs for my bread and butter,” he says.

Climbing as a sport is at a nascent stage in India. Karnataka has a strong climbing culture due to natural rock formations in Ramanagaram,Hampi and Badami. Over the last 12 years,Karnataka has seen many national champions in sport climbing. Climbing walls and climbing gyms are gradually appearing in Bangalore,Pune and New Delhi as well. “In Paris,universities have indoor gyms with multiple climbing walls. People even have climbing walls at home,” says Manikandan.

His dream is to make the sport popular in India,and turn young students into dogged winners. “I like to train others. Many of my students are national champions. I want them to compete and win championships for the country. In five to 10 years,we would like to sport climbing to achieve the status it enjoys in the US and Europe,” says Manikandan.

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