For many successful people, the drive to do well comes from having led a very difficult life. One such person is EKTA BHYAN, who changed her life around after a near-fatal accident to become a professional para-athlete. She has brought home many awards and accolades for India and in January this year, she won the Para-Sportswoman of the Year award at the Sportstar Aces Awards. RHEA SHETTY spoke to her to find out more about her journey.
- Gold medal in club throw at the 2018 Asian Para Games
- Gold and bronze medals in club and discus throw at the 2018 IPC Grand Prix, Tunisia
- Five gold and one bronze medal at the National Para Athletics Championships from 2016 to 2018
- Silver medal at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Berlin, Germany, in 2016
- Slated to compete in the club throw event at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics
Tell us more about your relationship with sports. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor and thus was more inclined towards academics. At that time, sports was purely a recreational activity. Becoming a sportsperson was purely coincidental. However, once I discovered a deep-rooted and ardent passion for sports, I started enjoying it and then there was no turning back. The constant practice improved my fitness level and this led to the journey of representing India, my country. Sports has brought me a lot of proud and happy moments.
Tell us about your sports journey after 2003.
In 2003, I met with a near-fatal road accident when an overloaded truck fell on a stationary car I was seated in. The accident left me with shoulder-down paralysis and thus in a wheelchair. After spending nine months in a hospital in Delhi, I returned to my home town in Hisar district, Haryana, and resumed my studies. I took up a BA in English Honours and went on to finish my master’s degree in English and a bachelor’s degree in education. In order to be financially independent, as I had always envisioned myself to be, I started preparing for competitive exams. Soon, I was offered a job as an auditor in 2011. In 2013, I successfully qualified from the Haryana Civil Services Exam and started to work as an assistant employment officer. Shortly after this, interviews based on my journey were published in a couple of newspapers and that is how my coach Amit Saroha learnt about me and asked me if I wanted to join sports. My journey with sports thus began in 2015.
How did Amit Saroha inspire you?
He introduced me to sports. He is a professionally trained sportsperson himself and a recipient of the Arjuna Award. It is truly inspiring to see the efforts he takes to bring para-athletes into games.
What kind of determination did it take to establish yourself as a sportsperson post your accident?
My circumstances were very difficult post the accident and my life was quite challenging, both physically and mentally. Because of the disability, I had to learn to do everything all over again, from scratch, taking one step at a time like a child. I couldn’t eat or sit by myself. As time passed, I started focusing on the things in my life that were under my control and that worked best for my mental state. The constant support of my parents helped me adapt to my new life and my sports journey.
What is the secret behind your perseverance and success?
I am a strong believer in hard work. I have always put in my best efforts whether it was life, sports or academics. And whenever life threw me a curveball, I went all out and tackled it patiently. I believe that life is not in our hands but living is. I have a zeal in me to achieve my targets. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for the love and support I received from my family; they made everything possible for me.
Why did you decide to take up club and discus throw? Club throw is the only game that people with a disability in both the upper and lower limbs, just like mine, can take part in. I thus chose the club. Further, as I got more involved in para-athletics, I grew more fascinated with discus throw. Being a club and a discus throw player himself, Saroha motivated me to play both the games.
Do you think female sportspersons in India receive the value and recognition they deserve?
Yes, a female sportsperson is equally valued and recognised. And the best part is that as parasports are being recognised on a global level, we have received a lot more admiration and respect, which was once only given to able-bodied athletes. With people becoming more aware of parasports, I see hope for the future. The media too has played a very important role in positively influencing the changing mindset of the masses.
What is the best part about competing?
The line, ‘The best of you comes out of you’ is the perfect definition of what I feel when I compete against my opponents. While taking down each obstacle, we challenge our limits and give our best, which eventually helps us improve our performance and brings us one step closer to our goal.
What challenges did you face whilst preparing to represent India internationally for the very first time?
At the beginning, I was not sure of taking up sports professionally as I was also working as an employment officer. A few questions did cross my mind and I definitely had my doubts about managing my time and work whilst having a disability that came with its own challenges. But after I went on the ground, I gained more confidence and eventually realised that I could pull this off. With time, I started working hard with greater enthusiasm. My coach’s and parents’ support motivated me to work harder. I won a silver medal when I first represented India in 2016 at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Berlin, Germany. It was a great moment and my heart was filled with pride.
Has your handicap motivated you to push yourself further?
Yes, I have always challenged my mental and physical limits. After my injury, society perceived me and my disability very differently, which was difficult to cope with. But even during the most troublesome phase of my life, when I went back and started from the bottom, I knew I had to work harder to become financially independent. My parents’ consistent support helped me get four well-respected jobs. It felt extremely great when I finally qualified in the state civil services exams.
It truly uplifts my spirit each time I hear of people with a disability who have gone back to make a fresh start after they have come across my journey, especially the ones who had left their studies midway due to their physical condition. There was a time when I couldn’t sit for more than 15 minutes, but with a disciplined schedule, regular exercise and physiotherapy, my stamina improved and now I can sit for as long as needed and can perform my official duties along with sports.
How do you prepare yourself to go out on the field?
Before a competition, it is very important to keep oneself composed and keep the mind at ease as there is an immense amount of performance pressure. So, I follow these six rules:
- Sleeping 8 to 10 hours
- Spending time talking with family and friends
- Eating healthy food
- Drinking enough water
- Complete relaxation and rest
It was a great feeling as I was beaming with joy and feeling content at the same time. I began dreaming bigger and working hard towards bringing more laurels to my nation on an international platform. How has sports helped you become a better version of yourself? Truly speaking, sports has helped me to stay fit both physically and mentally. Today, I can see myself doing things that I could have never imagined. I pushed my limits to come out of my comfort zone and now I am more focused than ever towards accomplishing my goals.
How do you stay calm and rooted after each win?
I always feel calm after my performance, just like after an academic examination. I always analyse my performance and then I think of how I can improve it the next time.
Have you ever got carried away by your achievements?
After every match, I look out for my next goal. I know every moment is precious and so it should be brought into effective action in the best way possible.
Tell us about GoSports Foundation.
GoSports Foundation has been my sponsor for the last three years. It looks after every important factor of a player, which makes us better in every way.
What is your message for other para-athletes like you?
Para-athletes are role models for disabled people who have been living inside four walls and have been hesitant to step out due to their own mental barriers, infrastructural barriers and how they are looked at socially. As para-athletes, we need to support each other in order to set good examples; to raise issues concerning the disabled and give everyone equal opportunities regardless of their condition. We need to motivate and encourage other disabled people to get access to proper education, employment and opportunities in sports.
What valuable life lesson would you like to pass on to children?
We must be defined by our hard work and choices and not by our circumstances. Life can indeed be challenging at times, but with hard work and focus, we can achieve any impossible goal. No one can stop you from achieving your targets if you are motivated and confident enough to do so. Also, we all need to be sensitive to the needs of other people whilst setting good examples by helping out each other like responsible citizens.