Meet the Match

Indian Swimmer and Para Sports Leader Advocates for Inclusion

Shams Aalam may come from humble beginnings. But, he always aspired to greatness.

Born to a farming family in the small village of Rathos in the state of Bihar, Shams lived the normal life of every boy in the flood-prone village. He had “swimming in his blood” and loved being in the water. At the same time, he excelled in cricket, wrestling, and karate. By the time he quit the sport, Shams had won more than 50 medals in district, national and international Shitoryu Karate competitions.

Despite his sporting success, Shams and his older brothers encountered sparse opportunities to educate themselves past secondary school. So, he made the decision to move to Mumbai—around 2000km, a 35-hour drive, from his village—to continue his education. In 2010, Shams earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Mumbai University, and later added a master’s in business administration from Sathyabama University in 2017.

The same year he finished his first degree, Shams also had his life flipped upside down. In October 2010, he had surgery for a spinal tumor and was left paralyzed from the waist down.

After two years of rehab, Shams began swimming again as a form of aqua therapy. It was during this time he met Rajaram Ghag, an Indian Paralympic swimmer who swam across the English Channel in 1984. Motivated by the suggestion that he might one day become a sportsman and represent his country, Shams took to the water, completing his own record-breaking 8km open sea swim in Goa and competing around the world. He now has his sights set on qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

Through his own experience of living with a disability, Shams has learned a lot about the powerful influence sports can play in one’s success; especially, when a person is first recovering from injury and unsure about what the future holds.

“To come out of your depression, you need to have hobbies that give you a new focus and motivation,” Shams says, “and sports are the best hobby. Music and art are good for you. But, swimming works every part of your body, while also giving relaxation to your mind. If you get a chance to compete, it restores your confidence that you can do anything.”

Shams compares his experience of suffering a disability as an adult to losing his old life and being born into a completely new one. While he has found empowerment and confidence in his new life, he has also experienced challenges. After rehabbing, he was denied jobs because of his disability, and he says he is not alone; employment discrimination is a serious issue across India, although new legislation is attempting to establish fair treatment. For those who, like Shams, do not own cars, travel is also a notable challenge with the dire lack of accessible transportation.

Shams believes the lack of accessible transportation and facilities is tied to societal ignorance toward disability and, in obvious cases, social discrimination. He vividly recalls having to sit down with his family to motivate them after his own injury.

“I had to tell them: ‘Let’s accept that I am differently-abled,’” Shams says. “’I cannot do the things normal people do, but there are things I can do better. We have to believe and keep going.’”

Shams’ story has been featured in media across India, and he and has spoken nationwide about his empowering experience of becoming a competitive athlete following his injury. He also founded the Mumbai Para Sports Association, and organized Maharashtra state’s first Para Games in 2015. Through his efforts, thousands of people in his community have had the opportunity to show their talents in athletic competitions. Most recently, he was appointed as an athlete representative by the state of Bihar, where he will advise on sports rules and regulations in his home state.

“My disability was a big change,” Shams says, “but it also gave me new opportunities to explore myself. Disability has taught me: people don’t lack strength, they lack will. I’m trying to show people that disability doesn’t stop you from doing great things.”

Referring to the medical diagnosis that he is 100% disabled, Shams likes to joke that whenever he breaks an old record or establishes a new one he proves he “isn’t 100% disabled, but 200% able.”

Through his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Shams took one step further into expanding adaptive sports opportunities to people with disabilities in rural areas much like his hometown. To accomplish this goal, he sought to learn more about the U.S. sports management system, as well as fundraising. He was mentored by Doug Garner, a man whose life and career have been defined by developing adaptive sports programming for elite and non-elite athletes. In his role as assistant director of campus recreation for adapted sports, as well as head coach of the University of Texas-Arlington’s men’s wheelchair basketball team, Doug has organized teams in five different adapted sports, engaging three dozen student-athletes and more than 500 members of the UTA campus community. With his passion and determination for impact, and Doug’s expertise, Shams has access to every tool he needs for growing the adaptive sports movement in India.

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