Wheelchair warrior Madhavi Latha to take her basketball team to Thailand

A crowdfunding campaign to raise INR 15.25L by the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) can take the Indian Paralympics story further, with a team that will compete at Asia Oceania championships in Bangkok between the 21st to 28th of January 2017. Premjit Mohapatra spoke to WBFI founder-president Madhavi Latha, a national-level para swimmer and wheelchair basketball player, on her journey. Rooting for the team, currently training in Chennai, is India’s legendary athlete Milkha Singh.

With 2 golds, one silver and a bronze the Indian Paralympics team of 19 athletes outshone the performance of the nearly 120-member strong Indian contingent at Rio Olympics, who came away with a paltry haul of two medals. Contrast this with the fact that not a single Indian broadcaster had picked the telecast rights of the Rio Paralympics and the picture of apathy, discrimination and how generations of these enduring heroes have not attracted the limelight it deserved, is complete.

But what was discernible in the Indian Paralympics’ contingent was India’s absence from participation in team sports events. But all that is set to change soon if the efforts of Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) and its President Madhavi Latha’s efforts bear fruition.

STEPPING STONE:  Asia Oceania championships in Bangkok, 21st to 28th of January 2017

WBFI is raising funds from donors through the crowdfunding platform FuelADream.com. They urgently need to raise Rs 15 lakhs to meet the participation fees, equipment, accommodation, and flight expenses. Rs 6,50,000 have to be deposited before Oct 31 as participation fees.

They also require specially designed high-performance wheelchairs to compete at par with other teams. “They cost at least Rs. 3 lakh each; if we mobilize enough funds or get corporate sponsorship we can afford them, else the team will be competing with basic models,” says Madhavi. The team has already created ripples in the country with their never say die attitude and performances. The legendary ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh is their ardent supporter. “We are thrilled to have the support of Milkha Singh and RanganathThota, Founder and CEO FuelADream.com and believe our endeavours shall deliver the desired results,” states an optimistic Madhavi.

THE GOAL: Men’s Under 23 Wheelchair Basketball World Championship, Canada 2017

Currently, a group of 22 young men are training in Satyabama University campus, Chennai under the watchful eyes of Head Coach Antony Pereira, a 1971 Indo-Pak war veteran, Assistant Coach Thayumana Subramaniam and Lebanese coach Toufic Allouch. Pereira and Toufic, both wheelchair basketball players, know and understand what it takes to succeed in this sport. Pereira says, “Toufic has been great with the boys and he is doing this pro bono. He is passionate about his role, single-minded and has developed a good rapport with the boys. He is determined to see them succeed in the qualifying tournament in Bangkok, Thailand. The boys are a talented and determined bunch and have picked up the technical nuances, wheelchair and ball skills well. Since most of them come from underprivileged backgrounds, we have put them under a special diet and nutrition plan to meet the strength and stamina requirements.”

WBFI President Madhavi Latha, Secy General Kalyani Rajaraman (standing), with IWBF Coach Toufic Allouch, U23 Indian Team Coach Antony Pereira and Asst Coach Thayumana Subramaniam (standing).
WBFI President Madhavi Latha, Secy General Kalyani Rajaraman (standing), with IWBF Coach Toufic Allouch, U23 Indian Team Coach Antony Pereira and Asst Coach Thayumana Subramaniam (standing).

MADHAVI’S STORY: A wheelchair warrior

Madhavi Latha, a national-level para swimmer and wheelchair basketball player, founded WBFI in 2011. As a child, she was affected by polio but willed on by her determination to succeed and the support of her parents, she completed her graduation and found a job in a nationalized bank. After an MBA in Banking & Finance, she joined an MNC bank, but eight years on, her health deteriorated rapidly. The medical diagnosis was ominous. Her spine had compressed further owing to the disease and was putting pressure on one of her lungs, depriving her body of oxygen. The future appeared bleak when the doctors gave her a year to live, but then she met Dr. Ananda Jothi, a physiotherapist who recommended ‘hydrotherapy’ to improve her condition. Reposing faith in the confidence of the physiotherapist and ignoring the cynicism of her parents, she took to exercises under water. Hydrotherapy improved her health immensely. “I felt very light and free underwater and could jump and do every kind of movement which was hitherto not possible. I experienced what freedom was like,” said she recalls.

Her romance with water did not stop there; she took it forward by participating in competitive swimming races. She won a Bronze medal in the Corporate Sports Olympiad 2011 in 100 meters freestyle swimming, 3 Gold medals in the 2011 Paralympics, 2 Silver and 2 Bronze Medals in the 12th National Paralympics Swimming Championship 2012, and a bevy of medals in successive national-level para swimming events. But Madhavi wasn’t done. Her passion for sports led her to start a Trust, aptly named ‘Yes We Too Can.’ “The purpose was to sensitise society and differently-abled people on how sports can foster a positive change in their lives and contribute to their physical, social and emotional well-being,” she explains. The response was very encouraging and subsequently they started The Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu in 2012, which today has 300 para swimmers. During this phase she was supported by various NGOs but her collaboration with UK-based NGO ‘Choice International’ made her familiar with wheelchair basketball and subsequently led to the formation of Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) in 2014, a registered national body.

Being a national-level para swimmer and wheelchair basketball player, the merits of team sports and its positive impact on differently-abled people were not lost on Madhavi. “Team sports as opposed to individual sports helps the differently-abled people to fit in, besides assisting the physical rehabilitation process. Often, the differently-abled are socially isolated and not part of the mainstream, which severely affects their social skills and breeds an inferiority complex. It reduces their anxiety and enhances their social skills, boosts their self-esteem and helps them interact better.

Team sports brings out leadership skills among the differently-abled and cultivates team spirit,” explains Madhavi.

WBFI-1SHOT IN THE ARM FOR WBFI

WBFI’s efforts yielded results when the International Committee for Red Cross entered into collaboration with WBFI. This was further bolstered when the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) recognised WBFI as an authorised body to promote wheelchair basketball in India. With the support and technical expertise of IWBF at their disposal, WBFI could ramp up the scale of their operations by conducting camps throughout the country. IWBF helped by sending four instructors who extended technical help, besides training coaches, classifiers and referees in a camp conducted at Hyderabad. “The initial response we got was mixed. While the wards were enthusiastic, the parents took a conservative approach and were apprehensive that the physical nature of the sports would impact their ward’s bodies adversely. But we tried to address their concerns by impressing upon them positive health benefits that accrue from playing a sport. Attitudes and perceptions need to change for a conducive ecosystem to develop for the differently abled to realize their potential,” reveals the WBFI president.

Only 12 team members will make the final cut when the camp ends and they will travel to Bangkok with their coach and assistant to represent India. So let’s step up and contribute generously to the cause so that they realize their mission. Contribute to the campaign at https://www.fueladream.com/home/campaign/400

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