I absolutely love swimming. But as a kid when I started learning how to swim, the experience was nothing short of traumatic, and I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would reach this far!
Puddling as a kid
When I was 11, my sister and I would go to a neighborhood pool. My idea of swimming was to fool around in the shallow section. One day our instructor decided that I was old enough to graduate to the deep pool and she threw me inside. I panicked and refused to go the next day. But my mom managed to convince me. What happened next has gone down in my family history book and made me a butt of jokes for years to come!
Next day when my instructor walked towards me, I ran from the campus towards my house, all throughout shouting ‘bachao, bachao, bachao!’ with my instructor following me on her scooter! I never went back to that swimming pool again.
Then after some years, my city, Nagpur, got its first Olympic-size pool. It was the talk of the town and I fell in love with the entire campus. It had an indoor and an outdoor pool, as well as a separate diving pool. It was here that I finally learned to swim and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I was so committed, that I would wake up early and be there by 5 AM, every day.
It was a bonus when my uncle built a pool at his farm. We got unlimited access to it any time, any day. My cousins and I would spend hours swimming. I have fond memories of munching on hot bhajias in the pool.
A brief hiatus
Things obviously changed after my cervical spinal-cord injury. Forget swimming, initially, I was not able to move around the house by myself. Paralyzed below shoulders, which meant zero movement of the body below injury level, it was difficult for me to imagine an active lifestyle. With time things have gradually changed for the better; now my body is strong enough that I can sit through the day and hit the bed only at night. To be able to sit means I can do many more things like working, going out et al.
A new beginning
I had given up on the idea of swimming considering all the complications involved, till I met Justin Vijay Yesudas at a seminar held at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre. He is a quadriplegic and competes internationally in swimming. Meeting him in person was a ‘wow’ moment for me and I was bitten by the swimming bug yet again!
Though this time it was not going to be easy. Many valid questions crept into my mind:
- How would a quadriplegic get in and out of a pool? I had seen brochures of a crane-like equipment, which helps in lowering one inside the pool.
- How does one control bladder movement in the pool.
- Is there a pool in Nagpur that is accessible?
- God forbid if something goes wrong when I’m inside a pool, I need someone strong enough to be around me; male vs female instructors.
- Changing rooms don’t usually have space for a bed or a bench, which is my requirement to change clothes.
- What if I panic, water enters my lungs or I am not able to breathe?
Picking up the momentum
A couple of months passed, but I had not given up on the idea. It got a push when I got a chance to meet up with S Vaidyanathan (aka Vaidy Sir), one of the founders of The Spinal Foundation. I shared my dream of swimming, and he connected me to Divyanshu Ganatra, who has set up ‘Adventure Beyond Barriers’ — an organization that combines the skills of abled and disabled so they could jointly participate in adventure sports.
Divyanshu is visually impaired but has nerves of steel. He has done unimaginable stunts like paragliding solo. He is based in Pune. I spoke to him about my situation and he was quick to suggest scuba-diving as something I could try out. He acknowledged that I was the first quadriplegic he would be working with, but was quick to add that it would serve as a learning curve for him while dealing with other people with spinal cord injuries.
As luck would have it, I was traveling to Pune for a few days and I managed to coordinate the date for my first day of training. However, whether or not I would go inside the pool on that day was something that would be decided after meeting me in person and an initial briefing.
Well, I managed to cross the bridge!
One final hiccup
My anxiety was killing me and as if this wasn’t enough, Divyanshu called me a day before my D-day to remind me to go through a medical questionnaire to check if I have any health issues which could be a concern. Life with SCI comes with many health complications. Boy, I was scared to open that document. There was a long list — from pressure sores and sinus to blood pressure and lung diseases. I took a deep breath and read through the entire list, and thankfully I could reply with a ‘no’ to all the “showstoppers”. I also needed a costume, hunting for which wasn’t a cakewalk. One entire day was spent at a mall, till I found the right one.
My date with the pool!
The previous day, I sent some last-minute ‘how-to’ messages to Justin; like how to clamp the catheter and he promptly replied. His closing message was reassuring and motivating — just go and have fun, you will be fine!
On D-Day, I reached our meeting point — a sports complex, which has a swimming pool inside. I reached early and used this time to “take a walk” on my wheelchair in the parking lot to reduce the morning muscle tightness.
Then I met Kshitij Mittal, who runs the show at Finkick Adventures SCUBA Diving Center. Both Kshitj and Divyanshu are extremely jovial and high on energy, which helped me get rid of my first-time jitters.
In the backdrop of the Rashtriya Life Saving Society annual day celebrations and demonstrations by lifeguards, Kshitij began his briefing with ‘let’s get to know each other first :-)’.
I told him about spinal injuries and he gave me a lowdown on techniques and tools used in scuba diving. We discussed signs to communicate when inside water. I could not give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’, so we settled for a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ nod.
I tried the mask and the snorkel – it felt a bit humid. I got introduced to hand paddles and Kshitij fixed them on my palms. While sitting in the wheelchair, I practiced moving my hands around in Breaststroke-style. He showed us how to fasten the lifejacket and handed it over so that I could put it on after changing.
Scuba duba doo
While Kshitij was giving me instructions, I had already imagined myself into the pool! Armed with a life jacket, I was placed next to the pool, ready to be slipped inside.
But, me being me, I rattled off some possible situations and the corresponding actions required so that my instructors are not taken by surprise. “I will get a spasm when water touches my body for the first time, legs may stiffen. So, let’s just splash some pool water on me so that the body is accustomed to water before going in” and so on.
The magic began right from the moment I was effortlessly slid inside the pool and was finally afloat. That’s it, this is it – in less than 2 seconds I was inside the pool, floating, looking up at the clear blue sky, zero panic. After so much of build-up in my head, after so many anxiety pangs, I was finally in the pool! It was as simple as that.
For the zero panic bit, I must give full credit to my instructor Kshitij. From the time that I spent interacting with him before getting inside the pool, I was convinced that he knows his stuff and had my back. Under his watchful eyes, nothing could have gone wrong that day.
My first activity in the pool was to just float. With assistance, I went from one end of the pool to another. Initially, I focused on staying calm, getting used to water entering my ears and breathing. Then I thought of old times and dared to move my arms around. As I am not able to ‘feel’ anything from my shoulders down, I was not able to gauge if the water was hot or cold. But as can feel the ‘touch’, I could feel the movement of water running between my fingers, below and above my arms. It was a hot afternoon and my face was feeling dry because it was above the water level throughout.
My next daring act while floating was to bring my wet palm close to my face and I did that too. There was no fear of toppling because Kshitij was behind me supporting my neck. I enjoyed looking out for things like a green tree at the end of the pool and following a flock of birds in the cloudless sky.
Then it was time for me to face the water upside down scuba-style. Instead of a snorkel, I was given a regulator connected to a cylinder. Now I had to breathe through my mouth instead of the nose. I had to hold the breathing apparatus in my mouth, which actually was a pain-in-the-jaw because I clenched it tightly. Kshitij reduced the air in my life jacket and turned me over for a few seconds. My visual changed from the sky to the bottom of the pool and the two instructors underwater.
Maintaining eye contact was important to flag uneasiness. I could not take it for long and signaled to go back to floating. It became easier after a few times. I got my hand paddles on and was moving my hands around. What a moment! I didn’t feel like stopping and calling it a day – but I had to.
Special thanks to Sarvesh for this video of moments from that day:
It took a lot of courage for me to dream about swimming again. But once I had made up my mind, everything fell in place. This training experience gave me a taste of how living in the moment feels. I learnt how one can perform better and enjoy to the fullest when there is no fear.
I will never forget experiencing the weightlessness while in the pool, the way I enjoyed going with the flow and the immense joy I experienced once the task was over. Now I need to figure how to do all this while in Nagpur. Things are not going to be easy, but I’m sure this too shall fall in place.