Bengaluru boy beats birth defect and excels at swimming

A spinal condition and 17 operations couldn’t stop Niranjan Mukundan from winning gold after gold at international events

Niranjan Mukundan has been swimming since 2003.

Bengaluru boy Niranjan Mukundan, 24, was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord are underdeveloped. But his deformity and the 17 surgeries that followed have not stopped him from attaining new heights.

Today, he is an international para-swimmer, and has won five gold medals in Norway recently.

He has a master’s degree in sports management from the Institute of Sports Science and Technology, Pune.

He took to swimming as aqua therapy after his doctors recommended swimming or horse riding to strengthen his legs and overall development.

“I started swimming in 2003. When I went into the pool for the first time, I felt like a fish. Navigating through the water seemed easy and came to me naturally,” says Niranjan. 

Back then, he says, not many knew about para-sports including his family. However, it was John Christopher, a coach at the swimming centre, who spotted the then eight-year-old and approached his parents to tell them that their kid had more potential than just aqua therapy.  

“He suggested to my parents that I should take up competitive sports and para swimming. That time, it was beyond our minds to think about me representing India. But my parents took his words seriously, and we gave it a shot. Three months after I started swimming, I represented Karnataka (since 2003), and won a silver medal; and India since 2012,” he adds. 

Given his condition, his journey was a bumpy ride, he says. People often asked his parents why they were experimenting with him.

He says, most of them thought his parents tortured him. “But they didn’t understand that it was the other way around. My parents were thinking out-of-the-box and so was I. Swimming opened many avenues for me. I am what I am today, because of swimming,” asserts Niranjan.

Niranjan had friends and relatives who helped him. But there were many who thought he couldn’t excel at sports.

“They sympathised with my condition. But swimming changed how everyone looked at me,” says Niranjan. 

Bengaluru lacks in infrastructure for the disabled. “But there are many in the city who come forward on their own to help people in need,” he says.

Niranjan is currently training in Thailand under a swimming scholarship. Whenever he is back in the city, he loves catching up with friends on Church Street and M G Road.

Besides swimming, Niranjan is a big cricket buff and a motorsport enthusiast.

“I hold a national and Asian record of completing the Golden Quadrilateral (Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata) in a car in 124 hours. Solo trips are something I enjoy. Thanks to swimming tournaments, I also get to travel and explore places,” he says.

Who do you look for inspiration? “I find inspiration in every corner but if I have to name someone, it has to be my parents. Knowing that they have always stood by me when they could have simply given up inspires me every day. I also look up to Rahul Dravid and Michael Phelps.

Niranjan is now looking forward to representing India at the Olympics next year. “I have been rigorously training for it,” he signs off.

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