Through the windowpane of her car, P. Madhavi Latha looked like any other enthusiastic contestant at the Annual Car Rally for the Blind- gearing up to drive with the help of instructions given by a visually-impaired person who was armed with a Braille route map.
However, as she opened the door and her heart out, the 43-year old paralympic swimming champion revealed almost casually, her remarkable journey from having to be lifted by her brother and father to be taken to school in Sathupalli in Khamman district, to winning three gold medals in the severely disabled category at the 11th National Paralympic Swimming Competition held in Kolhapur.
“I do not have any negative feelings, because I can do everything that a normal person can do,” said the effervescent Madhavi, who was affected by Polio when she was seven months old. Today, the general secretary of the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu and associate vice-president, Scope International, she spearheads initiatives to make sporting, and particularly swimming facilities more accessible to the differently-abled and never misses her evening swimming sessions.
“It took great effort to find a house which was disabled-friendly and had a car park facility,” she said. She recalled how she appeared as a private candidate to pass Class XII in Sathupalli, took special permission to write the ‘logic’ paper as she was the only student, got a BA in maths and public administration, and fought for a hard-earned banking job in the public sector. “I had to learn English when I moved to a big city like Hyderabad,” said Madhavi who had studied in Telugu medium until then.
“When I left my bank job in Hyderabad to join my current job, my extended family initially opposed it because we did not know anyone in Chennai and thought that I would not be able to handle the work pressure,” she said. “It was a bold decision my parents and I took at that point because I wanted a challenging job.” In 2007, when her health deteriorated because of muscular weakness, she had two options- a high-risk spinal surgery or Hydrotherapy. And, the first time she entered water, she felt liberated.
“I was free from the walker, and in water I could do movements which I can’t on ground. The water took care of my weight,” she said. Having learnt swimming on her own with the help of a tube, she called for more coaches who are trained in teaching differently-abled persons swimming. Madhavi, who learnt to drive a two-wheeler in 1999 and a car in 2004 because she wanted to be independent, has been putting off the decision to get herself a new car. “It took me around four months to get this car modified,” she said with one hand on the steering wheel of her hand-operated Maruti Zen.
(A column about people who have beat the odds and won.)