As the FIFA World Cup took the world by storm for the past one month, the less glamorous sporting events were largely ignored and stayed out of media glare. But stories and tales of achievements from such events too are pouring in with the World Cup rage having died down.
In one such feat, Ekta Bhyan, a hard-willed civil servant from Haryana in India, won a gold in club throw (an event where the object is to throw a wooden club as far as possible) and bronze in discus throw at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix held in Tunisia recently.
“Para athletes take efforts like a normal athletes to make our nation proud, but we are hardly recognized in society,” Ekta told Onmanorama. When the 33-year-old returned, neither did she receive a red carpet welcome nor media attention.
Aspiring medical student to civil servant
Ekta is the second of three children of a public servant-engineer couple in Hisar, north Haryana. As a child, Ekta was a bright student who dreamt of being a medical doctor. After securing good grades in her public exams, Ekta moved to Delhi to prepare for national entrance tests. Little did she know that life had completely different plans in store for her.
“I cannot forget that evening which changed my life forever. My car rammed another vehicle parked on the side. I do not know the exact cause of the accident," she said.
Ekta spent nine months in hospital after the accident which caused her a spinal cord injury, paralyzing over half of her body. “I had a tough time internalizing my new physical condition. I became dependent on my family and I could hardly fulfill my basic needs on my own. Emotional rehabilitation was harder than the physical one. I wasn't ready to quit either,” she said.
After a one-year break, she resumed her education and secured a BA in English (honours). Later, she did her masters in English literature and another bachelors in education. “Life seemed blank in front of me. I knew I couldn't sit back and take it as it came. At 26, I started preparing for the civil services,” she said.
At 30, Ekta cleared the Haryana civil services and got posted as an employment officer in her home district. “Now, that made news. A couple of newspapers published my interviews and my face became familiar to the public. Those interviews were the real turning point in my life,” she said.
Saroha's big role
Ekta became a busy, responsible civil servant at 30 but before she fell into a comfort zone, Amit Kumar Saroha, one of India's leading para athletes, contacted her with an exciting offer which she couldn't resist.
“He enlightened me about the importance of physical fitness and asked me to join the Indian para athletics committee and train as a para athlete under him. I thought of it for several days and decided to try my luck in sports,” she said.
Saroha, an Arjuna Award-winning paralympian who bagged several medals in Asian para games, gave Ekta rigorous training in his own events - club throw and discus throw. “We had long practice sessions together. He helped me conquer my disabilities and acquire control over my physical prowess. In 2016, I won a silver medal in IPC para athletics Grand Prix held in Berlin, Germany. That was the first recognition I gained as a sportsperson in my life,” Ekta said.
The very next year, she was selected to represent India in IPC World Para Athletic Championship - in the 15.3 meter club throw and 3.46 meter discus throw. And in 2018, she's a proud gold-medal winner in the women's club throw and a bronze medalist in discus throw at the World Para Athletic Grand Prix.
Hardships of a paralyzed Indian woman
Speaking of the arena she would like to work on, Ekta said her destiny was in another realm - on which had a social dimension rather than personal. “Life is hard for a paralyzed Indian woman. When even men think life is over after a spinal cord injury, most women end up sacrificing their dreams and spending their entire life between four walls after a paralyzing accident,” she says.
Ekta plans to work in the rehabilitation sector of paralyzed women. She intends to extend them better opportunities in arts, sports, higher education and life skills.
“Whatever I have achieved so far, I will hold close to my heart. I shall be a good teacher, athlete and a civil servant while not forgetting to build and accomplish better dreams,” she said.
Para athletics, an ignored area
While sharing her joy for having over wins, Ekta said para athletes were not encouraged and recognized by society. “We have stronger stories of survival to narrate. We have struggled to excel in our areas quite like any other normal sportsperson. But in our country, a para athlete is hardly recognized even in his/her own locality,” she said.
Ekta said our public places, services and devices are not yet accessible for a self-dependent wheelchair-bound person. “Forget additional infrastructure, our society hasn't met the minimum requirements of differently abled citizens yet.”
However, Ekta is all set to go on different missions. “Life is quite unpredictable. It is not in our hands but living is. These are not my words. My coach Saroha told me this during one of our initial practice sessions. Accepting the unpredictable is the toughest thing in one's life. I have already done that. Coping up isn't a new idea for me. So, I shall achieve my goals no matter how rough the winds blowing against me are,” she said.
Ekta has also got a word of wisdom for other spinal-cord injury survivors: “As long as you decide not to give up, no disability or accident will stand in your way.”