Strong convictions precede great actions. – James Freeman Clarke
It is often difficult in life, shaped by circumstances as it is, to retain clarity in perspectives overwhelmed by the extent of the problems weighing it down. There are, however, certain individuals who not only use these hurdles to uplift themselves – and others like them – but also to revive sagging self-belief and morale.
Rio Paralympian Deepa Malik is one such person, whose momentous life journey from a para-athlete to an ambassador of her sporting field has been built upon her overcoming every challenge trying to waylay her.
Deepa Malik: the Paralympian
Malik’s shotput throw of 4.61 metres in the T3 category that netted her the silver at Rio made her the country’s first woman medallist in the Paralympic Games. It also simultaneously made her the oldest woman athlete to achieve the feat in the severely disabled category, the toughest among the pre-defined classification for para-athletes.
“My medal is not just a medal anymore. The Rio Paralympics have created an atmosphere of inclusiveness,” Malik, who has been involved in para-sports since 2006, told Scroll.in. “It is a symbol of change and awareness. My winning the medal presented a perspective of women empowerment. It was an example of mind over body and it conveyed the message to the whole society.”
Going on to call it “an unforgettable moment of my life” as she did, for Malik, winning the medal also had a deeper relevance because of the events that threatened to mar her qualification for the Paralympics. Despite having been qualified and short-listed for the Rio Paralympics in the national trials held in July with a throw of 4.48 metres, which was an improvement over her personal best by 81 cm and equalled the No. 1 ranking in the discipline, Malik had a case filed in the Delhi High Court by a fellow para-athlete, who failed to make the selection cut for Rio.
Getting past obstacles
“It was a traumatic time for me. The person, whom I had mentored, filed a case of cheating and bribing against me. I lost time that I could have used for training in trying to come out of the legal proceedings. Finally, I won the case and on August 12 I flew to Rio.” Malik went on to add that the legal wrangle she found herself in made her all the more determined to win a medal and surpass her best of 4.48 metres, which helped her to make the final cut in the Rio roster. “My second throw [in Rio] was 4.49 metres and when the white flag was raised, I was very happy. I hail from an army background and both my father and husband are army officers. The Indian army is known for its integrity and honesty and it felt wrong that I was accused of cheating and using malpractice to get into the Paralympics. The Rio medal was a validation of my integrity and it helped shut everyone who had criticised me of sabotaging a fellow para-athlete’s career.”
Despite her understandable grievance about the incident, Malik firmly ruled out any possibility of her filing a counter-suit of defamation against the para-athlete, as it would be detrimental to her efforts in trying to raise more attention towards the field among the general public. Likewise, she also has no intention of halting her work as a mentor to the younger para-athletes because of one souring experience. “I want to look ahead and forget about it as a bad experience. But I won’t stop mentoring and I am currently mentoring three girls.”
From a para-athlete to a guide: Completion of the full circle
Malik’s role as a mentor has extended to the formation of her own foundation, Wheeling Happiness, which she started in late 2014 and in whose running she is helped by her daughter Devika Malik, a para-athlete herself.
About the conceptualising of the foundation, Devika Malik mentioned, “Essentially the idea was that since my mother is so proactively involved in raising the standards of para-sports in the country and since my mother is such a visible figure in para-sports, a lot of people would reach out to us wanting to explore para-sports because of their disabilities. Even now, we receive a lot of such calls. We used to help people in an individual capacity, but then we thought that if we could do it in a slightly more formalised manner then we will even be able to help these people with [a] little bit of funding for their equipment. Because a lot of these people can’t afford too much since they happen to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”
Devika Malik also went on to add that several outdoor activities are held through the foundation and led by para-sportspersons themselves as a way of displaying their purposefulness, without being marginalised for being physically disabled.
Deepa Malik’s efforts to bring about this parity between all sportspersons is being seen volubly in her role as a member of the 12th five-year plan instituted by the Sports Ministry. “As a member of the planning committee, I am looking to bring about at-par funding, at-par training [facilities] and at-par job opportunities based on the medals won, between athletes and para-athletes. I have spoken to my [para-athletic] counterparts from other countries and have tried to incorporate a similar module here,” said Malik, when asked about her role.
As someone who has had three surgeries and 183 sutures and who is paralysed from chest down because of spinal tumours, the 46-year-old Malik is an inspiration for all women, who describes herself as, “I am an adrenaline junkie. All the goals that I have set for myself give me a high. Whatever I have done [in life], it has not only elevated me, but it has also given out a social message.”