By Rimli Bhattacharya
“Disability is a matter of perception. If you can do just one thing well, you’re needed by someone” – Martina Navratilova
Did we know Kanchanmala D Pande until recently? We know her now. She is the first Indian blind woman to make history and win a gold medal at the World Para Swimming Championship on 7 December, 2017 in Mexico.
She is a visually challenged woman, who realized her potential in swimming at the age of ten. The aquatics need goggles as they cannot open their eyes diving deep in water. To Kanchanmala, it made no difference. Being born blind, she had the instinct in her to figure out directions by the sounds of the water splashing when she swam. She was depressed as she could not see the colors. To combat that depression, she took to swimming, which healed her pain and agony.
Apart from her studies, she practiced swimming for several years. She featured in 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Para Games, where she smashed six world records, which was no less than Michael Phelps’ seven in 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In 2009, Kanchanmala shared the Aspire Skillsworld Award with Badminton player, Saina Nehwal. This is one of the top awards for young aspiring sportspersons in India. Despite her disability, Kanchanmala managed to bag the honor.
In July, 2017, Pande, who is only twenty six, was selected in the Indian team for her outstanding performance at the IDM Berlin Para Swimming Championship. Back in Berlin, she had to beg for money as the amount approved by the Government for her tournament did not reach her. She was also fined for traveling ticketless in the public transport. Despite these hardships and mistreatment by Paralympic Committee of India (PCI), she still made the country proud by winning a silver medal.
Pande’s mistreatment by the sports committee provoked a nationwide outrage as the Olympic Gold medalist shooter Abhinav Bindra condemned the act and led the outcry. Bindra had tweeted, “This is UNACCEPTABLE. People must be held accountable. @VijayGoelBJP @narendramodi. A sports legislation which mandates all federations to professionalise is the only way ahead for Indian sport.” India’s Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi wrote, “Against all Odds has been every sportspersons story in India at some level but this is an all time low. #shameful #disgrace.” IPC vice president, Rajesh Tomar, had also voiced his concern when he said, “I was shocked to read about it. We as part of the IPC are also looking at the betterment of athletes. It is very unfortunate that such a thing has happened. Hope things get better for us in the future.”
Within minutes of this outcry, the sports minister, Vijay Goel, had demanded an immediate report from the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI). However, Goel clarified soon after that the Sports Authority of India (SAI) had released the money on time: “The Ministry through SAI released Rs 3.21 Lakh as 75 per cent of dues as advance payment to Para Olympic Committee of India in time and arranged tickets, etc. This amount was transferred in the account of PCI on June 22, 2017. Since the amount was transferred to the account of PCI, the players should not have been put to any hardship.”
Amidst all the controversies, Kanchanmala qualified for the World Championships in Mexico after she beat the qualifying mark in 100m Freestyle (1:34:00), 100m Backstroke (1:41:00), 100m Breaststroke (2:01:00) and a silver 200m Individual Medley (3:03:00) against top para-athletes in Berlin.
Pande was the only disabled woman swimmer to represent India at the world championship, which started on 2 December, 2017. She was to represent India in the 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 100m breaststroke, and 200m individual pastiche bracket. While she lost out on the chance to win a medal in the 100m freestyle race category, she recompensed this by winning the gold in the in 200 meters ragbag tournament in the S-11 category.
As the Times of India reported, Pande said on her win, “I had prepared well for the World Championship. I was expecting a good show in Mexico and also a medal. But, securing the top position and a gold medal at world championship is surprising. I am really very happy. At the same time, I don’t know how to express it in words.”
Apart from being the first woman to bag a gold in the para swimming championship, she is also a recipient of several other awards: Parakh Khel Ratna Purskar, awarded by Parakh Samaj Kalyan Sanstha, Nagpur; AIASHA Jagatik Kartrutwan Mahila Purskar 2005, awarded by All India Stri Heeth Association, Mumbai; ASPIRE Talent Award 2009 by H.R.D. Minister Shri Kapil Sibal; Outstanding Sportsman Special Award by IBSA (India Blind Sports Association), New Delhi.
Kanchanmala, who is employed with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), also loves basketball and classical music. The wonder woman of India has proved again that disability is no obstacle for an inspired mind.
Rimli Bhattacharya completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. After obtaining an MBA, she worked in the corporate sector. Rimli is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76
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