Deepa Malik was confident ahead of her competition at the Paralympic Games. Her daughter Devika, who had spoken to her before her event – the shot put F-35 category – though says she wasn’t making any predictions and was simply hoping to give her best attempt. “Mom will say you can’t go into a competition expecting to win a medal.
Because it isn’t as if you aren’t the only one competing. Every one is very driven. To compete in the Paralympics you have to be really motivated. You need to be a little crazy as well. My mom is perhaps a bit crazier than most people,” jokes Devika.
On Monday evening, Deepa Malik created history by becoming the first Indian woman to win a medal – a silver at the Rio Paralympics. The record books will show Malik hefted the shot put 4.61 m away from her wheelchair. The numbers however do little justice to the magnitude of Malik’s achievement. They are but a footnote to an already inspirational life.
Paralysed from the chest down 45-year-old Malik may well be the poster girl of the Paralympic movement.
Overcoming adversity, she has achieved success as a businesswoman, rally driver and athlete. If you are of a certain age, you might even recall her as part of the TV reality show Roadies, where she beat with a bunch of smug faced able-bodied youngsters in a swimming race.
Devika always remembers her mother being highly driven. Even when it was far from the easiest option. Deepa had been active in sports, representing Rajasthan state in cricket and basketball. She insisted on playing even though she suffered from a tumor in her spinal column that caused her to suffer paralytic strokes, first at the age of eight and then once again when she was 26 years old. Following the second stroke, doctors gave her a grim prognosis. Remove the tumor through surgery and suffer paralysis or let it grow and face certain death.
Devika recalls her mother making preparations for her impending disability matter of factly. “She was determined never to let it affect her. In the weeks leading up to the surgery, she began getting our house made wheelchair friendly,” recalls Devika, who was eight then. Indeed the period following surgery were hard. Deepa’s husband Bikram was a Colonel in the army.
“In fact he was in Kargil when she was undergoing surgery. He could only come home many months after her surgery. Even though it would have been easier to take help from our grandparents who lived in Jaipur, mom insisted on living away from her parents. She never wanted to become dependent on them or any one,” says Devika.
The physical transformation was drastic however. Deepa had spastic paraplegia (paralysis below chest level due to spinal cord damage at T-2 to T-7 level and three spinal surgeries resulting into 153 stitches between shoulder blades}.She also had to get used to dealing with negative mindsets. “People doubted her ability as a wife as a mother and as a human being. But she kept her positive attitude,” she says.
Disability, Deepa has said brought her life into focus. Swimming was part of her recovery. Soon she was swimming competitively. A few years later, in 2006, Deepa began training in the javelin and shot put. She was simultaneously running a successful restaurant in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra but shut it down in order to prepare for the 2010 Commonwealth Games – where she eventually finished sixth in her category in the shot put.
A bronze at the 2010 Para Asian Games was followed by silver at the Para Asian Games in 2014. In between Deepa also threw herself into adventure sports and rallying. After pursuing the case for 19 months, Deepa became the first person ever to receive a license for invalid (modified) rally vehicle. She subsequently become a navigator and driver in the – Raid-de-Himalaya 2009 and Desert Storm2010.
Her story is undoubtedly an inspiring one and Deepa has tried to share it with others. “She gives motivational speeches and I know that she has made a difference to a lot of people’s lives. There must be at least 60 people with disabilities who began driving because of her. Most people with disabilities never get around to learning because it is a long process to get a license. But my mother would push them. She would even teach them to drive in her own vehicle,” recalls Devika.
But there were disappointments too. Deepa wasn’t sent for the 2008 or 2012 Paralympics owing to quota restrictions. But that only made her even more determined to make a mark at Rio. Her training schedule for the Paralympics was gruelling. Deepa would drive her specially modified SUV from Gurgaon to the Siri Fort Sports Complex where she would train for three hours, return home and then practice again in the evening.
Devika and husband Bikram who accompanied her were often exhausted. “There are times when it becomes hard to deal with her energy. After training for three hours, I would be looking forward to getting home, but she would want to do so many more things before then. My dad and I would look at each other and think ‘Is she even serious!?,” says Devika.
Indeed even while she has now won a Paralympic silver, Devika knows her mother isn’t likely to stop any time soon. “I’m sure she will celebrate her achievement but she is already preparing for her next challenge. Even before the Rio Paralympics, she was telling me to buy tickets for the 2017 World Para athletic championships in London because she is sure she will be taking part over there as well,” sighs Devika.