That the human spirit can transcend physical limitations had been proven by India’s leading para-athlete Shams Alam of Madhubani district of Bihar. He not only overcame his paraplegic condition caused by a disease but used it to win national and international swimming championships.
The story of his life is poignant and yet inspiring for all those feeling dejected by the circumstances of their life.
Like most children his age, Shams Alam, 34, whose family hails from the Rathos village, was fond of swimming since childhood. He was sent by his family to Mumbai for his schooling in a government school. In school, he picked martial arts and won many medals. His passion for swimming and martial arts had made him a strong contender for the Asian Games.
While he was practicing his sports, Shams Alam felt a small pain in his back and it started affecting his gait. He was diagnosed with a tumor of the spinal cord and doctors advised surgery. Instead of going to the Asian Games, Alam found himself in an operation theatre.
The surgery left him without sensation in the abdomen area and legs - the lower part of his body. Doctor's assurance that he would be able to run soon never materialized. He was put him under the scalpel again, yet nothing changed in his body.
During Physiotherapy, the doctor told him that swimming does help in such a condition. Alam saw a ray of hope here; as such he was always willing to return to the pool.
The next day he reached the swimming pool but the coaches and instructors refused him entry. They failed to understand how a wheelchair-bound person could swim and feared Alam would drown.
Alam’s stubbornness paid off. After regularly banning Alam’s entry, they found a way to let him in.
As luck would have it Shams met Raja Rama, a para-swimmer. He encouraged him to swim and this finally saw Shams Alam back to doing what he loved.
He started working hard and won gold medals in state and national championships. Alam said, “I never knew that swimming would become my career. I won four gold medals in swimming and that made me very happy.”
There has been no looking back for Shamas Alam. He created history by completing a two-kilometer run in 12 minutes 23 seconds in his category in the Ganga River Swimming Championship.
In 2017, Alam broke his record by completing 8 km open sea swimming in 4 hours and 4 minutes. He became the world record holder for the longest distance swim completed on the high seas by a paraplegic.
Alam has represented India in the Polish Open Swimming Championships in Poland in 2019 where he won gold medals in 50m butterfly and 100m breaststroke.
At home, the government appointed Shamas Alam the brand ambassador of the Bihar Election Commission.
Recently, he was appointed a member of the Bihar Task Force by the Sports Department of the State Government. Awarded the Bihar Khel Ratna Award in 2018, he also received the Karna International Award in 2019.
Shams Alam says: “A lot has changed in my life since my disability. My attitude towards people with disabilities has changed. I started the Foot Support Association, Mumbai, which is now a registered body. It is a platform for people with disabilities to showcase their talent in sports.”
On June 6 in 2019, he was made to wait for 90 minutes for a wheelchair at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport after his 12-hour journey from Melbourne, Australia.
He claimed that after landing at the airport, he was provided with a faulty wheelchair. However, Air India claimed that the wheelchair was provided as per the standard procedure. The personal wheelchair was delayed for airport security reasons.
Shams Alam says I didn't want to spend the rest of my life crying about what happened. Now I want to move on. It took about a year and a half for the situation to return to normal.
He is above these petty things as millions look up to him for inspiration.