Thursday, September 20, 2012

Learn how to dream as I did: Fastest woman Paralympian on Earth, Terezinha Guilhermina

There are few people in this world, whose stories when you read, makes you want to meet them. And when you meet them, you just don’t want to let them go.  Terezinha Guilhermina is one such. She, the holder of the title of fastest woman Paralympian on earth, is also the possessor of the most infectious laugh and a killer attitude that I know of. My desire to meet her was for the former reason and to not let her go was for the latter.
And so it was arranged on the day after the end of the Paralympic Games in London, by the most gracious Fernanda Villas Boas, the Press Relations Officer for the Brazilian team. 

The entire Brazilian team, in their yellow and green jerseys was beginning to gather in front of the Straford International station to meet the Press. It was a nice game of spot the athlete for one who had watched the Games with fervent madness. ‘Look there’s Daniel Dias with six gold medals hung around him’, I squealed in excitement. ‘Oh! And that’s Alan Oliveira, the guy who upstaged the Great Oscar Pistorious in the 200m race for double amputees’. 
And then, I spot her. The great Terezinha Guillerhmina, something of a Paralympic legend. A multiple gold medalist from Beijing and London in the T-11 category in the 100m, 200m and 400m events.: A category for completely blind runners who run with a guide.
I whisked off Terezinha along with Mario, the Portuguese translator from the rest of the Brazilian team who were clearly the toast of the press and public alike for their stupendous performance in the London games.  
Her spunky attitude is evident from the very first sentence she utters while recounting her childhood growing up with total lack of sight. ‘At first, I started seeing shadows and thought that was how everybody saw. Only when I started banging into people and doors, did they realize that there was a problem with my vision. Gradually I could see nothing.’
School, then, was not very easy as she had no massive support from the teachers who largely wrote on the blackboard, which she could not see. ‘Since I had to write something in my notebook to keep the teacher happy, I wrote imaginary stuff. No wonder I failed twice in the same class’, she says with a naughty smile. It wasn’t until a sensitive teacher came along who read out lessons to her that she made to the next grade.
Terezinha has her older sister to thank for what she is today. When given a choice between swimming and running at her high school, she petitioned he sister for running shoes. It was like asking for a luxury item from a family of twelve siblings that lived in abject poverty in a small tenement without electricity. If not for her sister who got her those shoes, she would never have made it to the Olympic track. Why did she not take up swimming, I ask, out of curiosity? ‘I need a pool to swim. I can run anywhere’, she says with her characteristic verve.
 Naysayers were aplenty, who so much as scoffed at her, when she first declared she wanted to run competitively. ‘I will be the best in the world, wait till you see’, she told herself and the numerous doubting Thomases. So did she go back to them and stick it in their faces after she won her first Olympic medal, I ask. She laughs and I know that something very spunky was about to come. ‘No. I just told them to learn to dream as I did.’ How's that for an answer!
Terezinha, first competed in the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, where she won the bronze in the 400m event. She bettered her take home tally to a gold, silver and a bronze in 200m,100m and 400m respectively in the Beijing games in 2008. The T-11 category is one of the toughest, in that, athletes run with a guide runner joined at the hands, much like a three-legged race. The guide’s job is to assist the athlete with verbal instructions to cross the finish line. The rules also require the guide to break the leash just before the finish to let the athlete cross before him. Needless to say, it requires complete trust between the two as well as great communication,which is sometimes difficult if the crowd is blowing the roof off, as they did in London. 
She came to the London Games with one goal: Gold in all the three events. Gold in 200m was already in her bag, it was 2 more to go, when disaster struck.  Her guide, Guilherme Soares de Santana, fell before the finish line in the 400m race, which was nothing short of heart-breaking. When I saw the race on the T.V, apart from being devastated myself, I wondered what this meant for her last but most crucial 100m race and more importantly for the relationship between the two. Would they be able to put this behind them and move on?
Sport is an incredible teacher for building many enduring, life-enriching characteristics, chief among them being ‘Pick yourself up, dust down and move on’ or run, in this case. The very next day, Terezinha stepped on to the 100m  track, waving and smiling complete with her funky eye-mask and beaded hair in Brazil colors, not just to win the race but smash the world record at 12.01 seconds. In what was a very poignant moment, she then embraced her guide and held his hands up asking the crowd to cheer him on as they both cried. The audience responded with a well -deserved standing ovation, which brought a tear to many an eye that evening. It was quickly followed by an impromptu Samba by the Brazilian clean-sweep(they won silver and bronze too), true to the  Brazilian philosophy, that rejects anything tear-sodden and believes that life is one big beach party!
I ask her who her role models are, expecting someone on the lines of Florence Griffith Joyner or Marion Jones. Pat comes a strong reply ‘Pele and Ayrton Senna! I am always amazed by women athletes who have male role models, even more when they’re out of their own discipline.
It is perhaps easy to see why one would have wanted to carry on chatting with Terezinha until a thousand dusks or more. But the team could not have a photograph with their legend missing, could they? So, she must join them now. I had time for one last question.
Is there any desire that she has not yet fulfilled and would like to? ‘Yes’, she says. ‘To be a mum’.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Silver in London, Gold in Rio: Nothing less will do for HN Girisha

Great news makes waking up really early in the morning quite worthwhile. Like yesterday. I was groggily moving the screen of an Indian news site on my Ipad, when hidden obscurely in the sport section was this: India won its first silver medal at the Paralympics. Hosanagara Nagarajagowda Girisha won the silver medal in the High Jump. Brilliant!
Next minute, I grabbed the phone, called the Paralympic committee in India, spoke to Girisha’s coach Satyam and fixed up an interview for 4:30 pm. When I finally met Girisha at 6 pm, as the Indian media descended in hordes (probably after a congratulatory tweet from Ajay Maken, the sports minister and Narendra Modi), he was still managing a smile, still signing autographs and politely declining India badges as he did not have any.
As we settle down for a nice Indian cuppa, Samosa and Pakora, he warns me that his English is not great. ‘I can understand everything you are saying, but I am not able to speak very well. I am just now learning English.’ I think he is doing great and tell him so. ‘Really a? ‘, he looks pleased.
‘You know, last night when I saw the India flag going up, because of me, I am feeling very proud’, he starts. So you should be, Girisha, you should be! You made a whole nation proud and your achievements will change perceptions and attitude towards ‘disability’.  It will perhaps spur on many young people with disabilities to realize what they are capable of, what they can do. He hopes so too!
Girisha tells me he first realized that he could jump when he was six. Born with a left leg impairment, he won the first place at a school competition in his village in Hasan district (Karnataka), competing against fully fit kids. Since that day, he set his eyes on the bar. Both his parents are small farmers and so growing up was not very easy, financially, and definitely not, if you are born with an impairment. ‘It is difficult, but I know I wanted to do it. A lot of people helped me. If you want to do something, you will find people to help you.’
The one common thread I have noticed, having spoken to and read about athletes from small nations and challenging circumstances is that they never seem to dwell too much on their challenges. They focus on the opportunities that they have got, are grateful, and make full use of them. That is a big lesson for me, for all of us!
Girisha acknowledges the support of the principal of his college and his PE Teacher in rural Karnataka who recognized his talent and motivated him to participate at the National Games in Bangalore in 2006. He was seventeen and had never been to Bangalore or any other city for that matter. Since then, he has won consistently at the Para National games. I ask him what support did he get in those days that he was struggling to burst into the national stage. He politely but convincingly tells me that support comes in many forms. Not just monetary. Had his college not egged him on to participate in the National Games, his talent would have languished in his village. And he is grateful for that.
He knows that his moment of glory is not his alone. He tells me how Samarthanam Trust, a charity, helped him train for a BPO job, which helped him secure one with ING VYSYA Bank. The Bank, in turn sponsored his training and expenditure for the qualifying championships for the London Paralympics in Kuwait earlier this year. And then, he cannot emphasize enough the support provided by the Indian Paralympic Committee and The Government of India and Karnataka. We all like to diss the government for not doing enough for our athletes. A large part of it is true, but credit where credit is due!
What makes his silver medal more spectacular is that it comes at his second International outing. Yes, that’s right! His only other international championships were in Kuwait and Malaysia this year. This young man performed when it mattered the most, on the biggest stage that he could possibly get!
So was he nervous? ‘I am very scared before my first jump. But after that, I felt better. My best jump before this was 1.60m. Yesterday, I jumped 1.74, which is a new Personal Best (PB) for me.’ So how did he do it?  ‘The crowd’, he says. ‘The crowd were cheering so much that I did not realize I jumped 1.74m. And the good weather supported me’. London crowds are amazing, he tells me.
Girisha jumped ahead of the Polish favourite Lukasz Mamczarz whose PB was 1.80m. So how does he keep track of International benchmarks? ‘Internet’, he says. ‘I surf the net and read a lot on IPC website and so I know the athletes’ performances.’ Quite cool!
He trains under his coach Satyanarayana, who he met earlier this year and Nikitin of Ukraine at the Sports Authority of India(SAI) facilities in Bangalore. ‘Are they world class?’ I ask. ‘Not entirely, but very good’, he says. That’s heartening to know!
One thing Girisha is confident his medal will do is throw spotlight on Paralympics athletes. The same amount of prize money declared by the sports minister Ajay Maken ( 30 Lacs) as the Olympics winners is a great step forward. ‘India is a big country, yet only 10 athletes participate. Why? Good question, Girisha! ‘Look at China. They send 300 athletes. Small countries send more athletes than us. I want to see more athletes from India in Rio.’ Why don’t you convey this to the sports minister, when he comes to meet you at the athletes village tomorrow? Some of us can tweet, write, campaign. Make your dream come true!
While we are sipping in some hot Chai, an old man stops in his tracks and asks Girisha: India? Since he is too modest to say, I inform him that he is the silver medalist. ‘Oh yes, High Jump! We saw you last night. I am a Ugandan of Indian origin and you make me proud’. Girisha cannot stop beaming.
He is overwhelmed by all the support and congratulatory messages pouring in. He shows me some on his phone with a mix of pride and disbelief. He has slept only two hours since he won the medal, partly due to excitement and partly because of the media duties. Just as he is telling me this, a reporter from a big news channel in India interrupts us, with what looks like a tripod and what definitely seems an entitlement hung around his shoulder.
‘Are you finished with him? cos I am worried about the light.’ Well, why did you not drag yourself earlier then? What did you expect at 6:45 pm on a September’s day? That the sun will wait upon you, just because you are ABCD 48*4. I decided to be generous and continue my interview after the filming. After all, how long would that take?
Only a couple of hours, if you are a self-obsessed, care-a-damn-for-others, sort of a pushy ‘reporter’( sorry, I use that word very generously, for if you are one, you would report, for which you’ll have to listen and not worry about the frickin’ camera), who is ignorant of the principles of light. After making Girisha pose with the Jamaicans and all other nationalities that passed by, the reporter realized he may have lost light and decided to shift the filming process under the incandescent light. Hallelujah! Did you not attend any refresher course at all?
And if you are somebody who is rubbish at reading people’s faces, then at least you surely can read people’s lips? Well, Girisha’s were saying I AM TIRED. All these on deaf ears. And so if you thought our government cares a damn for our athletes, wait till you see our media, especially the electronic ones.
I feel the need to intervene and tell the coach that this is ridiculous. The coach says that this is necessary as it brings the athletes and Paralympics into the spotlight. He has a point. But should an athlete be subjected to this? Is this the media or mafia? Give us footage or we won’t feature you? Preposterous!
Finally, when the reporter had got his footage, and decided to let him off the hook, Girisha is on the verge of collapse. He apologizes to me ( as he repeatedly does during his hijack) and asks me if I could meet him tomorrow and we could speak in peace. I think he should rest and it was my pleasure entirely to have met and chatted with him. As we were parting, I ask him what next? What does he aspire for? Pat comes the reply, “Gold in Rio. Nothing less.”
The whole nation is right behind you Girisha! Aren’t we?

       (This photograph is courtesy the same reporter as my camera conked off at the right moment. Thanks Mr.Reporter)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Spirit in Motion: The Paralympic Games

The last five days have been awe-inspiring to put it mildly. The Paralympians came, danced their way into the opening ceremony, swam, cycled, ran, jumped and did everything else and more as the Olympians. All this with an attitude that makes you wonder: How are they ‘Disabled’ or even  ‘Differently- Abled’?
This was the first time I was watching the Paralympics and did not know what to expect. In the run-up to the games, the media did a brilliant job of bringing us inspiring stories of the athletes they called ‘superhumans’. Stories that defied every conventional notion of thought on what is possible. Voices of the athletes who told us how they viewed their disability and how they would like to be viewed. Esther Vergeer, the Dutch wheelchair tennis legend, who is on an unbeaten record of winning 465 matches, summed it up when she described herself as “cool”. Indeed, cool is what they are!
Yet, I imagined the races to be easier, with shorter lengths and less demanding conditions than the Olympic races. Except they are not! The Paralympians swim and run the same distances, while being grouped into different categories based on their conditions. They cycle in pretty much the same events: Individual and team pursuits and sprints, Time-Trials etc. They jump: both high and long. And you really have to see them play basketball: the speed with which they move across the court, the aggression with which they claim possession of the ball and the deftness with which they propel their chair while dribbling the ball. It is turning out to be my favorite sport.
My first hair-raising moment of the games was seeing Iaroslaw Semeneko of Ukraine swim 100m backstroke. With no arms! He used his legs to propel him forward and banged his head against the wall to finish 2 seconds ahead of his German competitor. Not to be outdone, Lu Dong of China accomplished a similar feat in the women’s event. Jessica Long, who was adopted from a Siberian orphanage lost both her legs when she was 18 months old. She won her first swimming gold at Athens at the age of 12! She is the current world record holder in 13 swimming events, no less. If you are wondering about her attitude, you only have to read what she headlines on her website: “Gold medals are not made of gold. They are made of sweat, determination and a hard- to- find alloy called guts”.
Hop to the velodrome and one finds superhuman cyclists with one arm or half a leg sprinting away. Some of them display their ‘coolness’ with painted prosthetics. The most awe-inspiring story has to be of double gold medalist Sarah Storey (GB), who was born without a left arm, was a Paralympic swimming champion from 1992 to 2005 after which she took up cycling. And won gold! She is not finished yet as she is racing on the road. Triathlon next, Sarah?
The track is replete with superstars. Oscar Pistorious, Jason Smith, Martin Mckillop, Terezinha Guellermina, David Weir and new kids on the block like Alan Oliveira.
The question, then, is how are they ‘disabled’ or ‘differently-abled’? If ability is the ‘quality to be able to do something’, these Paralympians have smashed the definition. They are anything but ‘disabled’ and certainly not ‘differently-abled’. They are simply able. Period.
These Games have been massive in propelling the Paralympic movement forward. The record sell-out of tickets and the overwhelming enthusiasm of the spectators show the appreciation for the seriousness of Paralympic sport, for they are serious athletes who train as hard. Most train alongside ‘able-bodied’ athletes. I would like to imagine a day when we have their timings and records on the edge of our tongues and discuss them as we do with other sports. That would truly mean mainstreaming the Paralympics.
If there is one thing the games and athletes represent, it is the limitlessness of human potential. They showcase what we are capable of and yet we don’t know.  They indeed are ‘Spirit in motion’.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Faster, Faster, Faster: The stride of Kirani ‘Jaguar’ James

Men’s 400m Semi-final, London2012: Oscar Pistorious was making history as the first double amputee to run in the Olympics. In awe of his relentless spirit, I scream my lungs out as the gun goes off. C’mon Oscar,C’mon! The race ends. I’m still in awe of Oscar for what he has achieved, when the BBC screens show a tall and majestic young man, still panting, walk up to him and swap his nametag with Oscar as a sign of respect for the athlete. In an instant, he won the hearts and respect of millions watching the race. And then he went on to win the Gold!
The young man is Kirani James, a nineteen year old athlete from the tiny island nation of Grenada. A world champion and now an Olympic champion. That evening he cemented Grenada’s place in Olympic history and his own in the hearts and minds of spectators.So, when I planned on writing this blog, I was sure I wanted to start with his story. 
I wrote a freak email to Olympics Grenada asking for a chance to speak with Kirani. Within 10 minutes, I had an email, putting me in touch with his agent Renaldo Nehemiah (once world’s best 110m hurdler). In the next half hour, I managed to speak with Renaldo.
‘How about tomorrow? I am flying back to the States, but will put you in touch with his coach, Harvey Glance. He can tell you what time works best after tonight’s medal ceremony’.  Was this real?
 Next morning, I called coach Glance, an Olympic gold medalist himself. Could I make it to the EAT café at Westfield mall at 12:30 today? Of course, I could! I bargained for 15 minutes of their precious time and the chance to see, touch and feel his gold medal and they obliged. Readily. I was elated at the prospect of breaking bread with two Olympians.
8th August, 12:20 PM, Westfield Mall, Stratford: The mall is teeming with people. At the café, not a seat was empty. I’ll perhaps wait to the corner seat to get empty. I was sure they would never arrive before 1 PM anyway.
12:30 sharp: Kirani and Coach Glance walk in. Disbelief again! First indication already on why he is a successful athlete. We manage to find a quiet corner in the mall, away from people who were beginning to ask for a photograph with him.
So when did he realize that he had a talent for sprinting? At the age of twelve, he says, in his gentle baritone. What? Most kids of that age are still throwing tantrums over food. And here he is, making choices about his life.
Kirani grew up in the small fishing community , Guyove in Grenada, where his father works as a labourer. His family are keen basketball players but he chose sprinting instead. I ask him why. ‘I participated in the Youth games in the Carribean and won the 400m when I was fourteen. If I could be so good at such a young age, I could be better. So I started believing and working harder.’ What remarkable confidence for a fourteen year old!  At seventeen, he was recruited on a scholarship to the University of Alabama under coach Harvey Glance. Here, he earned the nickname ‘Jaguar’ for his running style, as if he was going for his prey. At 18, he became the World Champion. At 19, he is the Olympic champion. What a CV already, eh?
I’m still amazed by this young man and his belief, when Coach Glance chips in. ‘The greatest thing about Kirani is his make-up. He is a modest, humble young man. I think it all comes from his family. The apple don’t fall far from the tree.’  That humility and modesty was evident on the track. After winning the race, Kirani did not run into the stands, as athletes usually do. Instead, he walked back and shook hands with all his competitors. Now I witness the same modesty off it.
What about opportunity? Small countries have limited opportunities as far as facilities, coaches etc were concerned. Had he not won the scholarship to study and train in the US, could he have achieved this? ‘If you are hungry and you want it, you make it happen. I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate the opportunity I have and do the best I can do. All I want to do is run for my country and make everyone associated with me proud’.’ He knows where he comes from but chooses to talk about the opportunity than dwell on the challenges with gentle steeliness.
Coach Glance thinks it’s not about the best coaches and training facilities. Of course, they matter. ‘But you have got to create your own “situation”. Even though there are a lot of opportunities in my country, lot of people let them pass by because they have not put themselves in a position to be started’, he says emphatically. What Kirani did, was to put himself in the situation, with his talent, hard work, commitment  and determination , to be recruited by  coach Glance at the University of Alabama.
How does he keep himself from all the distractions of the modern world? Like twitter and Facebook? I tell him that I looked for him on twitter and couldn’t find him. He laughs. He says he cannot handle twitter and so he stays away. So that’s how you focus!
 Managing  academics at university with athletics.How does he do it? ‘The one thing I promised myself and my parents was that I was going to get a good education. I have been finding the balance since I was twelve. I am now good at it’. When he is back in Tuscaloosa, he has the schedule of any regular student with classes often late into evening with a lot of track practice thrown in good measure.
Phew!I was beginning to get completely overawed by this level headed young man when I decide to ask him what it takes to be a champion, to reach one’s goal. ‘ Confidence in your ability. Don’t try to be somebody else. When you try to be somebody else and emulate them in what they do and you don’t do it, you’re going to be disappointed’. I gasp and ask him whether he is indeed a nineteen year old. He laughs shyly.
It was time for lunch. Kirani suggests a Carribean kiosk in the mall that he had been to before. Coach and I jumped at the prospect. At the kiosk, he is mobbed. Everyone wants a photograph with the young athlete. We sit down for lunch of rice and peas and curried goat. Even before he has stuck in his first spoonful, a little kid walks up. ‘Can I please get a photograph with you?' He nods vertically with that now famous affable smile, which means yes. And it’s pretty much the same routine for the rest of the meal. By the end of lunch, not one person has gone away disappointed. He says that is how young kids get inspired. He hopes to inspire many more, in Grenada and elsewhere.
Michael Johnson believes that Kirani could break his 400m World record(43.18 sec). At nineteen, he ran 43.94 seconds at the Olympic final. With that head on his tall frame and the team around him, it’s only faster, faster, faster for the young Kirani James.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

London2012: The Many Faces That Inspire

I realize how lucky I am! Never did I imagine in my wildest of dreams, that  a day shall come when I witness with my entire being, the “Greatest Games on Earth”: The Olympics. The realization dawned on me not when I moved to London 4 years ago, not when the BBC moved their studios to the Olympic Park, but when I took delivery of a white envelope from Royal Mail. My tickets had arrived! I was going to the Olympics!
With those tickets in hand, I was going to be part of a historic moment. I was going to tell myself and to those who know me “I was there at the Games”. Probably put a picture or two on my Facebook page, upload a dozen videos, tweet from the venues: basically, milk the social media to announce my good fortune.
And then the games began! Can London top Beijing’s spectacle? I didn’t think so. I thought I’d let the opening ceremony pass and probably go cycling instead (Wiggins had already inspired me even before his won the Time-Trials). No luck there. The Opening ceremony virtually imposed itself on me. Danny Boyle wanted it to start at 9:30 pm to vow the audience. And Boyle! Did he do it or what! The story of Britain through the ages was indeed a spectacle. But what caught my fancy, rather moved me, was the sight of ‘young athletes’ chosen and mentored by Britain’s greatest Olympians to light the beautiful Olympic cauldron. London2012 had lived upto its tagline: Inspire a Generation!
As days rolled, athletes upon athletes shone. Some by winning in a spectacular fashion, some by losing with grace. Some young and new, for whom this was their first moment in spotlight. Some veterans who had been there, done that and were seeking another shot at glory before they took a final bow. Some from the mightiest nations with all the resources in the world and some from the tiniest nations that one would struggle to locate on the Atlas.
All of them had one story to tell: Of Grit, Determination, Success, Failure, Endurance and Winning. As I sat through watching the games, hearing their extraordinary stories, the choices they made, the blood, sweat and tears that goes on to make them what they are, I was moved. Suddenly, The Olympics was not about “being at the Games”. It was much more. It was about being shaken and stirred by their stories, about learning from them, about emulating them, about being inspired!
What makes a Kath Granger come back for her fourth Olympics just to realize her dream of winning a Gold? What makes a Laura Trott emerge from a collapsed lung to being a double gold winner in cycling? How does Helen Glover take up rowing just 4 years ago and become a champion? What does it take for Kirani ‘Jaguar’ James to come from a tiny island nation of Grenada and win a gold? Why did Oscar Pistorious (Blade Runner) run in a 400m race in the Olympics against “able-bodied”men? In short, how do these remarkable people inspire ordinary people? How do they rise above their situations and achieve their dreams. This, to me, was the true excitement of the Olympics.
Here I am then, writing a blog on these extraordinary people, instead of posting some blurry photographs of myself at the Olympic games. Wise idea, don’t you think? And my blog fittingly is named “Inspiring generations: Stories of triumph from the Olympic Games and beyond”. I say ‘beyond’ because I’d eventually like to feature stories outside the Games. Stories of ordinary inspirational people.
When I first thought of the idea of the blog, I thought I’d write based on what was publicly available. Then something wicked struck me. How about I interview the athletes myself? My own voice sounded quite crazy to me. Yeah right! Like they have all the time in the world to speak to some random person who plans to write a blog. For god’s sake, she does not have one already!
However, in the spirit of the Olympics, I decided to give it a try. And how!
One young man who impressed me through the Games, even when he was carrying the flag for his country with a contingent of five at the Opening  was nineteen year old Kirani James of Grenada, who won the gold for Men’s 400m. I wrote to Olympics Grenada about my intention to write a story on Kirani, who put me in touch his agent Renaldo Nehemiah (a former athlete and world’s best hurdler in the 70s and 80s). Renaldo was kind enough to allow me some time with the young Kirani and his coach Harvey Glance(Olympic Gold medalist in 1976). And there I was, out of nowhere, having a chat with Kirani and coach Glance.  I cannot thank them enough.
So watch out for my next post: The story of Kirani James. This blog is my humble attempt to  bring out the stories of inspirational people, of positive role models in an attempt to carry the Spirit of Olympics forward: To Inspire a Generation!