London, Sept. 2: Two factors stood out when Event No. 35 was held at 10.35am yesterday in the Aquatics Centre at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
First, there was an Indian in the 100 metre breast stroke — 21-year-old Sharath Mahadevrao Gayakwad from Bangalore, who happens to be the country’s lone swimmer in the Paralympic Games.
Second, from the moment he plunged into the water, it was clear he was up there with the best.
It was easy to pick him out because he was on the outside — in Lane No. 7. Sharath came third in his heat.
However, after three heats, only the eight fastest went into the finals — and Sharath came 12th overall. But given the training and advantages the others had, Sharath’s performance was impressive.
The deafening roar inside the Aquatics Centre was amplified by the shape of the pool. The flags of 164 nations were strung like bunting above the water — India was sixth from one end. The place was pretty much packed with Britons waving their Union flags. It was noticeable many parents had brought along their children — they would grow up with the notion that there was nothing odd about being disabled.
For anyone not used to sports for the disabled, the Paralympics are a revelation. Some swimmers were so disabled that they had to be bodily lifted and placed on the deck.
With the blind swimmers, they walked in, with one hand placed on the shoulders of their helpers.
But once in the water, they swam almost like Michael Phelps. But one was inclined to go off to the side and it was only the dividing rope that kept him to his own lane.
At both ends of the pool, men with rods tapped the swimmers on their shoulders. It looked odd but the explanation from one of the volunteers was obvious: “The tap warns them they are near the end of the pool so they can do a turn — or it warns them they are finishing so they can reach out.”
Many appear to swim like fish.
In Sharath’s case, he was born with a deformed left hand — in fact, it is only a stump. Next to him in Lane 6 was the American Dalton Herendeen whose left leg looked amputated. In Lane 5, Zhao Xueming of China had a right arm missing.
After his swim, Sharath spoke to The Telegraph about the camaraderie among disabled swimmers. “We are really good friends and even while we are going on to the deck we are smiling at each other and wishing each other good luck because we know how we are and how important it is to cheer each other up,” he said.
For a 21-year-old, he came across as calm, cool, collected and mature. “In India things have improved because in the past it was really much worse,” he said. “But in many religions they think having a handicapped child is a sin. But we are in the 21st century and we have to educate people about para sports and disabilities.”
His appeal was: “I just want people to treat us as equals — nothing else.”
Coming to England, Sharath noticed a different attitude to disability. “Here, they get equal importance and a lot of support,” he said.
Everywhere, he was asked the same question: why only one swimmer from a country the size of India?
“I have to explain that from the government we are not getting the support,” he said. “If it was not for my sponsors, I don’t think I would have gone to Australia and I would not have given such a good performance — I would have definitely given my best but improving 5 secs in 100m butterfly and 2 secs in 100m breast stroke is something you cannot do with limited facilities. I have improved by a big margin.”
“I am really lucky because I have my parents supporting me and I have sponsors,” Sharath acknowledged. “My sponsors are the GoSports Foundation and Health Add Consultancy — they are working mainly for the employment of the physically handicapped and they are supporting me.”
Sharath has an elder sister who is not disabled. But he had never tried to find out why he had been born disabled.
“I don’t know — I haven’t asked my parents and they haven’t told me,” he said. “I have been treated the same as everyone else — it is not only the family. In my school, in my swimming pool and right now in my college, everyone treats me as equal.”
Sharath pointed to his missing left arm. “I was born with this .... I have a short left arm; it does not work inside the water but I can hold things.”
He had attended Little Flower Public School and was now studying the arts, psychology and journalism at Jain University, also in Bangalore.