Braving the odds, the mentally challenged students of Anbagam Special School have returned with a rich haul of national championship medals in swimming

When asked how he learnt swimming, 17-year-old M. Manikandan looked bemused and rotated his hands sideways. He is a mentally challenged boy but his achievement is no mean. He was declared the new national champion at the recently concluded Special Olympics National Aquatics Championship at Mandya, Karnataka.

“He is not articulate but can understand what you say,” says Sister Selvi, Headmistress and Secretary, Anbagam, a special school for the mentally challenged children. “But how you approach him is important. Verbal communication will not work all the time. You should communicate through gestures also,” she explains.

Manikandan bagged three gold medals in 25m freestyle, 4x25m and 4x50m relay events in the 16 to 21 years age group. In all, the Anbagam School has claimed seven gold medals including four by 36-year-old C. Srinivasan in the 30 plus category, a silver medal by Devi and a bronze by A. Andi in 25m freestyle event.

Srinivasan came on top in 100m freestyle and breast stroke, 4x25 and 4x50 relay events. The whole Anbagam campus was decked up to cheer the champions who brought laurels to the school. Of the 10 boys and 5 girls who represented the State in the championship, all the participants (three boys and a girl) from the Anbagam Special School had the podium finish.

They trained just for a month under K. Rajkumar, a yoga and swimming instructor specially trained to handle differently-abledchildren. “They have different level of attention deficiencies. I attended to that first. I taught them some simple yoga techniques and now they are better,” he says.

“Being mentally challenged, these children did not know how to exhale when they were inside water. It was a big stumbling block for them. I just helped them to do pranayamam and selective asanas like Supta Baddha Konasana (cobbler pose), Naukasana (boat pose) and Chakravakasana (Sunbird pose). It actually enhanced their breathing,” he says.

Training these children also involves a lot of patience, agrees K. Ramarathinam, Assistant Professor, SBT College of Special Education and also special instructor for the Anbagam School. “They are categorised as mild, moderate, severe and profound depending upon their IQ. While Manikandan falls under the mild category, Srinivasan is categorised as moderate as he also has hearing and speech problems. “Apart from regular academics, we also involve them in a lot of co-curricular activities, so that the boys and girls enjoy their stay and learn better. Depending upon their age, ability and performance level we categorise them and provide them necessary training,” says Ramarathinam.

Srinivasan turned out to be a good athlete. But his interest in swimming made him to compete in several swimming championships. At the National Aquatics Championships in Mumbai in 2010, he won three gold medals in the 30 plus category.

Anbagam also provides vocational training to its students and helps them in getting employment. Srinivasan is now working as an assistant in a printing unit while Manikandan is working in paper bag manufacturing unit. Both of them have now learnt to be independent.