Swimming against the tide

Over a decade ago, Madhavi was told she had months to live. Since then, she has become a national swimming champion


I grew up in a remote village in India, where knowledge of the polio vaccination was limited. I was affected by polio at seven months old: a massive attack that left me paralysed below the shoulders.

Where I grew up, a girl with a severe disability does not get a chance at education easily, as parents tend not to be interested in providing it, but thankfully my parents were progressive thinkers and made sure I went to school. I was unable to go to college or university because they did not have disability friendly facilities, so I turned to home education and graduated in mathematics. I decided if I could not go to the external world, it would come to me.

Working to work

My first attempts at securing a job were not easy. I applied for a post at an insurance company and was disappointed to not be considered. My disability was a bar for the post. One of my cousins suggested I try for a job with a bank, as he was aware of people with similar conditions working in financial services.

So I attended a Banking Services Recruitment Board exam followed by an interview, and passed with flying colours. I was called for medical test, which should have been just a formality. But for me, it was another fight. The head of the medical board declared me unfit for the job. I challenged his decision based on other orthopaedic doctors' reports. After three months, I finally received my offer letter.

Years later, when somebody told me the private sector would be difficult to succeed in, I decided to rise to that challenge. I studied for new qualifications and joined Standard Chartered in 2006.

I was so happy to join. The accessibility services were so much better than I’d experienced before. They made changes for me, simple things like disabled-friendly restrooms. People would laugh when I told them how delighted I was simply to have accessible restrooms!

In 2007, just a year after I joined, my health deteriorated. My spine was compressed and my lungs were under pressure. I went to a doctor who told me I would soon be bedridden, and that I had only months to live. I didn’t know what to do. Facing this health crisis was one thing, but I had only just secured a job I was really enjoying. Thankfully my bosses told me to take the time that I needed.

Finding a way

I refused to concede to the doctors’ assessment and went to see a physiotherapist. He told me that being at home was not what I needed, and suggested hydrotherapy. My parents were shocked at the idea of me getting into a pool, but the child inside me – who had always been deprived of going near water for fear of drowning – was very happy to try.

I began visiting my local pool, did exercises in the water, and learned to swim using a flotation aid. When I entered the water, I realised it was the best place for me. Whatever I couldn’t do on the ground, I could do in the water. I could walk, I could jump, do yoga. So many options opened up. Soon the flotation aid was gone.

I was worried my bosses would reject my requests for flexible working, to help with my swimming lessons, but they were open to everything. The hydrotherapy helped me so much that I was able to sit again without a brace and return to the office. It became a second home to me.

National champion

One day I saw an advert for a swimming competition and put my name down. When I turned up, nobody thought I was there to participate. They were surprised to see me in a swimsuit. I was the only disabled person there. They put swimmers around me during my event, in case I struggled. But I finished my 100m freestyle and when I came out of the pool, it was like I had won gold at the Olympics. The whole place was cheering for me.

I couldn’t believe that after everything I had been through, I was recognised as an athlete! Through swimming I learned about the Paralympics, and I co-founded the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamilandu, an organisation to promote disability confidence through swimming. I knew first-hand that swimming could really transform people’s lives. We quickly assembled 1,200 volunteers and hosted the first national disabled championship in Chennai. More than 350 disabled swimmers came from across India.

I continued to swim myself, more and more, and at the age of 40, I became a national champion. I can’t describe what I felt, achieving this after so many years of being told I was unable to do what I wanted. Swimming really liberated me.


Reaching out

In 2014, I started the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India with some like-minded people. I wanted to focus on basketball as it’s a team game. People with disabilities are not often given the chance to lead, are often told they cannot do things. I wanted to show people that they can do things. That they can be part of a bigger community. I stepped back from my duties as the president of the federation in 2020, but am continuing to support them as a volunteer. The federation now operates in more than 24 states and has more than 750 disabled participants. Their aim is to reach the Paralympics.

Through my swimming and basketball programmes, as well as my ‘Yes, We Too Can!!!’ movement, I’ve tried to spread the word about disability confidence as much as I can. The main challenge in our society, not just in India but around the world, is a lack of awareness, even sometimes among people with disabilities.

I give regular talks around the world, spreading the message of disability confidence. I have met Indian government officials, requesting they promote a supportive ecosystem for disabled sports. I’ve worked on adding ramps and accessible infrastructure to swimming pools and encouraging the practice of hydrotherapy. Right now, I’m working on spreading the word about technologies that can make the lives of disabled people easier, and on the mental health effects of disability.

COVID-19 has sadly prevented me from spending much time in the pool, but I’ve used that time to write a book about my life, Swimming Against the Tide. I may not currently be able to travel as much as I’m used to, but the book means my story can travel where I can’t, and hopefully inspire people around the world.

The message is simple: people with disabilities should believe in themselves, and society should learn to believe in them too.

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