Kumar Manikandan, the first Indian World champion in the sport, talks about his journey

Kumar Manikandan believes in staying positive at all times. The first Indian to be crowned world champion in climbing history battled heavy physical and financial odds with a smile.

Born with polio in his right leg, Manikandan began his climbing career by using his hands to lift his right leg to position before moving on to the next step on the wall. With practice and fierce determination, the Bangalorean improved his physical condition, and soon competed against able-bodied climbers in the country with aplomb.

Financial constraints have held him back – his family lives on a daily wage of around Rs. 80 – making it even harder for Manikandan to gain success in an activity considered more a hobby than a sport.

Perhaps his feat deserves more attention, but the 26-year-old is content with the rewards received after winning gold at the Paraclimbing World Championship held at Paris last month in the Arthritis and neurological physical disability category.

“Many people have promised financial help after my win in Paris, which is a big relief. I’m lucky to have people come forward and help me. A little money will come, and things are going pretty well. A new life has started for me.”

Manikandan retains his cheerful demeanour when questioned if greater heights could have been achieved if help had come earlier. “I’ve always wanted to compete in an international event, but somehow it did not happen for many years. So when I went to Paris for the World Championships, I was very happy. I’m sure I will enter many more international events in the future.”

India does not have a paraclimbing category in its tournaments yet, and Manikandan was an automatic choice for the world event after his admirable top-10 finish competing against able-bodied opponents in the national championships last year in New Delhi. Despite beating heavy odds to qualify for Paris,

Manikandan almost did not make it there. The money needed to pay for his travel was initially inadequate, and timely assistance from the Karnataka State Police Housing Corporation (KSPHC) and the General Thimmaiah National Adventure Academy ensured his participation.

Manikandan went on to win gold in a tournament essentially regarded as the Olympics of climbing. “In 2002, when I first began climbing, I had said in an interview that I wanted to be a world champion. And when it happened last month, I felt proud. I went to Paris with the simple aim to win, and I’m glad I did. During the medals ceremony, our national anthem played for the first time ever in a world championship climbing event (Before this, Indians have never won at the World Championships or at the Paraclimbing Championship). I cannot describe the joy in words.”

There is no talk of wondering how life could have turned out had he been born without an ailment. “I have always felt that I am normal even when I compete against fully fit men. The affected leg never even affects my mind; I just keep climbing with the aim to become a top sportsman.”

The diminutive climber says the sport had brought him a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose in life even before he became world champion, and hopes to use his experience to help others. “I plan to start my own climbing academy. With ten years of experience in this sport, I am sure I can produce more winners. It will also be great for our community to have more people taking up our sport.

Manikandan has met a few high ranking government officials and corporates to help this project materialise, and one hopes that substantial assistance is provided. It will go a long way in producing more world champions.