Now an established paraplegic swimmer with several accolades in his lap, Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh was born in a small village of Bihar. This is the story of this champion who conquered the challenges thrown at him and went on to win four gold medals at the Indian Open Para Swimming Championship in 2018.
The village was surrounded by three rivers and thus, it was prone to floods. Naturally, Shams learned to swim when he was a kid. His grandfather was a wrestler, as told by his mother. As he grew up hearing the story of his grandfather, Shams always wanted to become a sportsperson. He was fond of martial arts and went on to get a black belt in Karate as he participated in Karate competitions nationally and internationally. Things were fairly well for him, he even completed his mechanical engineering and was all set for the corporate world.
However, in 2010, his life changed when he was diagnosed with a spinal tumour. Even after his surgery, there was not much improvement. As Shams got another checkup, he found out that the surgery was a failure and the tumour was still there. “Back then in 2010, I was going to represent my country in Asian games 2010 in Karate. But all my dreams shattered as the lower half of my body became ineffective. I became paraplegic,” recalled Shams. He lost sensations below his chest.
Shams got his disability certificate in 2012, which stated that he is 100 per cent disabled and it's an eternal disability. “I didn't want to spend the rest of my life crying about what has happened and now I want to move on. It took almost one and a half years for things to get back to normal,” said Shams.
In 2012, Shams went to a rehabilitation centre named Paraplegic Centre situated in Mumbai. At the centre, a doctor told him that swimming is good for the rejuvenation of the nervous system. Shams, who was already a Karate champion, also knew swimming very well. Unfortunately, he was told that he can't swim, also if he does, the authorities will not take accountability if anything goes downhill.
It happened at the centre only that Shams met Raja Ram, also a differently-abled swimmer, who motivated Shams to pursue swimming. He started swimming, worked on his form and went on to win gold medals at state and national championships. While talking about the same, Shams said, “I never knew swimming would become my career. I won four gold medals in swimming and it gives me immense joy,” said Shams.
He further added, “After my disability, a lot has changed in my life. My perspective for people who have a disability has changed. I started the Parasport Association, Mumbai, which is now a registered body. It is a platform for people with disabilities to showcase their talent in sports.”
He not only aims to bring medals for his country but also to help his community. He said, “Being featured in 300 most influential people in Asia 2020 by The New York Press News Agency is what makes me feel proud of myself. We are also working on making people with spinal cord injuries nationally registered with proper data. This will help our government and our society to recognise our problems and might even make things a little better.”
“We don't have any qualified para swimmer coach in India, however, Raja Ram, who became my coach and mentor and is an International para swimmer, helped me to tackle technical issues and my physiotherapist helped me in gaining physical strength. Now, my father helps me in doing workouts,” said Shams.
When we asked him about his opinion on Michael Phelps and him consuming 12,000 calories a day, he said, “Yes he consumes around 12,000 calories a day but it is not possible for me and I cannot compare myself with him since it is quite difficult for me and I have never counted how many calories I consume in a day.”
According to Shams, in terms of techniques in swimming, there is no difference between a normal swimmer or para-swimmer. People like Shams who have severe disabilities do some things differently but there are not any major differences.
“I sometimes miss old Shams Aalam. But it is only sometimes, who I am today is a better version of myself,” said Shams.
In 2017, Shams broke his own record by completing 8 km of open-sea swimming in 4 hours and 4 minutes. He came to be the world record holder for completing the longest distance of open-sea swimming by a paraplegic. “I am going through the worst time now since swimming pools are closed due to covid and I am not able to do swimming. I could not qualify this time for the Paralympics 2020 which I wanted to qualify for,” said Shams.
When Shams was 13 years old, he loved watching Bruce Lee on his television and often imitated him. In 2002, he started playing Karate and participated in Karate competitions without thinking about the outcomes. However, the older Shams never had the greater visions of what he would become. He is grateful and continuously pushes him to achieve much more.