As a child, Shams Aalam’s life often involved taking carefree dips in rivers in his village in Bihar. But he never thought swimming would be his chosen sport. While growing up, much of his spare time was spent on karate. Not only is he a black belt with over 40 medals to his credit, the mechanical engineer became a qualified coach too.
But in 2010, an acute pain in his back led to further diagnosis, which revealed the presence of a tumour in his spinal cord. Numerous surgeries later, the lower part of his body was left paralysed. Cut to 2017, Shams braved his immobility and the sea at Candolim beach in Goa to break his own record for the longest open sea swimming by a paraplegic. The 30-year-old Mumbaikar swam eight km in the seas along the Sinquerim-Baga-Candolim belt in four hours and four minutes.
He recalls that his life’s turning point came after the surgery for removing the tumour proved unsuccessful. “The doctors said I’ll be fine in 15 days but I my legs didn’t move. Further investigation revealed that the tumour was still present. I got operated again, this time it took 21 hours but the results were the same,” he says. “The doctors assured me I would be on my feet in 20 days but I was bed ridden for over five months. Everything collapsed when I couldn’t move my legs,” he recalls.
At the rehabilitation centre for paraplegics, he met Raja Ram Ghag, another paraplegic who inspired him to take up swimming. When he visited Dadar’s Mahatma Gandhi Pool to give it a try, attendants at the pool were against the idea. “I convinced them to at least let me try and then they could send help if a mishap happens. The moment I entered the pool, I swam from one end to the other and immediately felt my muscles relax and there were no spasms under the water. I had all my childhood memories flashing back.”
His first stint with open sea swimming was in Mumbai, which he would not complete. “It was a stretch of five km at Gateway of India but I couldn’t finish the entire stretch and that was a huge disappointment. I then began practising more and within a few months participated in Malvan Open Sea Swimming for a stretch of two kilometres and successfully completed the event,” he says.
Swimming against the tide in an open sea is far more difficult than that in the pool and constant practise is a must to maintain stamina. “I have to practise daily for two hours in the pool along with exercising in the gym to build my stamina and strengthen my glutes.”
Meanwhile, he researched and found that there is wheelchair karate practised in Ireland and Australia. “I got in touch with them and in 2017, with nine nations participating in the Asian Karate Championship, I bagged a Gold for India in my category. Once I am back in Mumbai, I wish to spread more awareness about wheelchair karate and that being disabled doesn’t mean one will be physically incapacitated,” says Shams who is currently pursuing an MBA in Chennai.