Deepa Malik: The Paralympian who won India’s hearts with her extraordinary story
India’s flag-bearer of para-sports, Deepa Malik is a woman extraordinaire. Today, she’s the President of the Paralympic Committee of India but her journey has been a true roller-coaster ride.
Deepa grew up playing every sport she could find and was especially addicted to her bike.
But in 1999, she had to undergo life-changing surgery to remove a spinal cord tumour. Thus, began her life in the wheelchair or ‘will chair’ as she calls it. For an active person, this was quite the ordeal.
She missed riding bikes and then there were her children to take care of while Bikram, her husband, was posted in the Army. To keep busy, she started a restaurant called ‘Dee’s Plate’, and before she knew it, bulk orders became her way of life.
The ‘never give up’ mantra
It wasn’t enough by any means. Deepa missed her active life more than anything else. So, after strength training at Delhi, the trailblazer took up swimming and came tenth at the World Championship in Berlin. But the lack of heated swimming pools was a threat to one of the most amazing women in sports, so she decided to stop swimming after one last notch on her belt—crossing the Yamuna to enter the Limca Book of Records.
And, with an Army boat following her and Malhar boatmen stationed everywhere, she swam across the river, got her record, and bid goodbye to her swimming career.
It has been 21 years since Malik had her surgery. She took to Twitter to recall the fateful night and celebrate the life she has had. She said, “Celebrating 21 glorious years on my 'Will Chair'! It's today that I was reborn in a chest below paralysed body (sic). Celebrating life and paying gratitude to one and all who helped and supported .”
Deepa went back to sports with javelin throws. She wanted to participate in the 2010 Para-Commonwealth Games that were being held in Delhi. However, she didn’t win anything and used her learnings to get a bronze medal two months later at the Asian Para Games in Guangzhou. Post that, she created multiple records and was even awarded the Arjuna Award by the President of India.
But that wasn’t enough for Deepa. She dreamed big of playing at the Rio 2016 Paralympics and trained day and night for it. However, three years of hard work went up in ashes when it was announced that javelin had been replaced by shot put. It broke her heart but nothing was stopping this changemaker from realising her dream.
She learned shot put from scratch! It was a struggle initially—she had to control her bowel movement and practise without changing her diaper for hours. But the Sports Authority of India and the Target Olympic Podium Scheme came to her rescue with a doctor, trainer, nurse, physio, and all that was required. Deepa cleared her trials and made history at the age of 46 by becoming the first Indian woman silver medallist in the shot put F53 category.
“There isn’t a greater feeling than to see your flag go up for you at the world’s greatest sporting stage and to know that you are the first-ever Indian woman to win a medal. It meant I had come full circle,” she recollects in Boria Majumdar’s and Nalin Mehta’s Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games.
Deepa has won plenty of awards and medals in her tenure—23 international medals and 58 national ones to be precise. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012, and was bestowed with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2019, the country’s highest sporting honour.