National Paralympics Swimming Champion
President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI)
General Secretary of the Paralympics Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu (PSATN)
Associate Vice President in Scope International Pvt. Ltd. (a wholly owned subsidiary of Standard Chartered Bank)
Founder of Yes We Too Can movement
Meet this superwoman who tackles every obstacle in her way with grace, courage and an enthusiasm which many of us lack. In conversation with Madhavi Latha Prathigudupu, an inspiration to anyone who thinks they cannot achieve what they want to:
Growing up in a small village called Sathupally in modern day Telangana, Madhavi defied traditional norms from an early age. A massive polio attack at the age of 7 months left 80% of her body paralysed. She could only make use of her hands. Her simple family comprised a school headmaster, a housewife and five children, among whom she was the youngest. Her mother had always wanted all her children to study as she couldn’t, owing to societal pressures. So, instead of paying heed to superstitious comments from the villagers and accepting unwanted sympathy, they decided to support their child in every way they could.
In an environment wherein girls stopped studying after 7th or studied at most till 10th, they not only educated Madhavi, but her father and brother also used to carry her to and from school, to enable her learning. They wanted her to be financially independent and not be a burden on anyone. After Xth, the school refused to accommodate Madhavi’s special needs and she studied at home, only appearing for the intermediate exam in which the bright student achieved first class! Being of a cheerful, friendly and social nature, she missed talking to people and her friends at school, so she thought she’ll make peers come to her doorstep if she herself could not attend school. So the brilliant child tutored students one year junior to her in Mathematics, while at home.
Discrimination Faced, and Fought Against:
Having studied Mathematics, Public Administration and History in college, Madhavi applied for M.Sc. Mathematics and a job in LIC as she learnt there were opportunities there for the differently abled. She prepared for her exam but found that candidates with a lesser graduation percentage than her were getting hall tickets to appear in the exam, but she wasn’t. She later got to know that this was because there was no vacancy for people with legs-related disability. She was then asked to apply for a typing job. She did not know typing then but took it upon herself to learn typing. She then took a course for it and again, achieved first class.
By then she had started looking for jobs in banks and had cleared the written and the interview round and was selected for a job in the State Bank of Hyderabad. She was asked to appear for a medical test and then join them in Hyderabad for accepting the appointment letter. A day before leaving for Hyderabad, she received a telegram saying she was ineligible for the position. A pediatrician (head of the medical board) had ruled her unfit for the role, without consulting an orthopedic. That was extremely shocking for both Madhavi and her family. She applied for re-verification and went to Hyderabad to talk to orthopedics and their unanimous opinion was that she was fit for the role and even the courts would rule in her favour, if she decided to sue. So she went to the State Bank of Hyderabad and presented her case about an orthopedic case being falsely judged by a pediatrician.
There was another medical test, this time by an orthopedic, and she was ruled to be eligible to take up the job. She then started and worked at the State Bank of Hyderabad for 15 years, living in different towns and villages, before moving on to Scope International in Chennai. In Hyderabad, she says one of her happiest and most exhilarating moments were when she bought a scooter and used it to go from one place to another, without having to rely on anybody. She says that feeling of tasting freedom for the first time was indescribable. She then went on to buy a hand operated car for herself in 2004.
The shift from Hyderabad, which was her comfort zone, which spoke her native language and one in which her colleagues supported her, to Chennai, was subject to a lot of questions from her relatives in the village and others, who felt it was a risky move to switch from an established government job to the private sector, in an entirely new city in which she didn’t know anyone. But Madhavi felt that she had to continuously learn and challenge herself to new environments, new places and new people, in order to keep growing, and so she did.
Madhavi says she found people’s nature in the city to not be any different from that of the villagers she had left behind. Everyone was extremely supportive of her. But she also rues the fact that differently abled people are not empowered to be independent. She says they do not want sympathy or unsolicited help. People sometimes go out of their way for them, out of good intentions, but she says they want to be able to do everything on their own, as far as possible. She wishes that the government develops infrastructure to support and empower people like her, to be able to live freely with respect and dignity.
How the Prospect of an Emergency Surgery Led to Swimming:
In the year 2007, Madhavi started suffering from severe back pain, and she could hardly sleep at nights. After several trips to different doctors, she finally got to know that she had Post Polio Syndrome and was given less than a year to live. This happened because of a severe lack of physical activity, being wheelchair-bound all life. She was also having difficulty breathing because of spine and lung compression. Only a miracle could have saved her life, and water turned out to be that miracle.
Having refused a very dangerous surgery for her condition, Madhavi was recommended a physiotherapist in Chennai, by one of her old students, whom she taught while being home-schooled. This proved to be the turning point for her as Mr. Ananda Jothi recommended she try hydrotherapy, to exercise and gain back some use of her limbs. He also advised her to go to office everyday to maintain her mental health as she was on sick leave due to severe pain and weakness. Once in the water, Madhavi began to exercise and walk and jump, and was looking forward begin to swimming as well. But there was no coach to teach her the sport, so she took it upon herself to learn swimming. As she progressed, she found a coach who could attend to her special needs and even learnt all kinds of strokes under him!
Swimming, Yes We Too Can and Basketball:
Madhavi realised that she could do competitive swimming when there was a Corporate Olympiad organized in 2010 for corporate employees in Chennai and she shocked everybody when she stood up to compete against all the other participants (she was the only participant with a disability in that competition). Since then, Madhavi has won the bronze medal in the Corporate Sports Olympiad held in 2011 in 100 meters freestyle swimming, 3 gold medals and individual championship in her category in 11th National Paralympic Swimming Championship in 2011 held at Kolhapur, 2 silver and 2 bronze medals in the 12th National Paralympics Swimming Championship in 2012, 1 silver and 3 bronze medals in the 13th National Paralympic Swimming Championship held in Bengaluru in 2013, 4 gold medals in the 14th National Paralympic Swimming Championship held in Indore in 2014, and 3 gold medals in the 15th National Paralympic Swimming Championship held in Belgaum in 2015.
All this, at the age of forty! This only goes to show that it’s never too late to start something, which might end up being one of the best things you would do with your life.
She then started a movement called Yes We Too Can, aimed at supporting, encouraging and helping differently-abled individuals get training in sports, while also spreading awareness about hydrotherapy and its advantages. Madhavi believes that actively playing sports will better differently-abled people’s physical and mental health, and lead to the development of a more inclusive society. She took an initiative, along with a group of like-minded people, and formed the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu.
She proudly states that when the Paralympics Association hosted the 12th National Paralympic Swimming Championship (its year of inception itself), more than 500 swimmers participated. Her initiative gained support and the Tamil Nadu government sanctioned a swimming pool for differently-abled citizens. Now there are around 300 paralympic swimmers in Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu stood 4th in last year’s national championship.
She is also a wheelchair basketball player and the President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI). She says she strives to support women through these associations, at federation/technical officers’ level and also at players’ level.
She strongly believes that women involvement at all levels will help in bringing more women players into these sports. Due to their efforts, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) supported WBFI and even the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) recognized the WBFI by providing their affiliation, and sending its coaches and referees for training local technical officials and athletes. Till now WBFI has been able to spread this sport to around 9 states with 350 players. Its aim is to send a team from India for Under-23 World Championship to be held in Canada in June, 2017. For that, they are planning to send a team for Asia Oceania Zone level Qualifying Tournament to be held in Bangkok, Thailand in January, 2017.
Inspired by her speech in the conference arranged by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), Sportzcraft Inc. took initiative to arrange coaching camps in parashooting in Delhi and Chennai. Her list of achievements just doesn’t end!
Madhavi has one message to give her peers – always do what you can, and people will help. There’s no point in lamenting the lack of opportunities. Rather, find ways in which you can live to your fullest. Family and colleagues’ support matters the most, as they’re your everyday source of strength. On being asked how she juggles so many responsibilities, she says she does everything with passion – her work, her sports and sports associations, and her NGO – all make her happy and satisfied. She says she’s enjoying every moment of her life!
We too, are inspired by you and your can-do spirit, Madhavi. Hats off!