Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh is an Indian Para-Swimmer. He represented India in the 2018 Asian Para Games. He was a 4 times Gold Medalist at the Indian Open Para Swimming Championship in 2018. He also won a Bronze at the 2016 Can-Am Para Swimming Championships. Aalam also holds the record for the longest open sea swim by a paraplegic person.
A Karate-enthusiast, he played on state and national levels before his surgery. In 2020, Aalam swam for 2km in 12 minutes and 23 seconds. He is also a motivational speaker and has had several TedTalks and lectures as an influencer.
Team Storiyaan had a word with the legend about his journey and passion and goals to accomplish in the future.
Questions and answers
Following your passion isn't a child's play. What is the one thought that pushed you to pursue your passion?
Swimming was more of a necessity for me. But somewhere along the way, I realised that we might not know what’s happening now, but, it will all make sense in the future. Just stick with it. It will help your career.
How did your paraplegic condition affect your daily life?
So for me, it was sudden. Imagine a non-disabled person suddenly realising that he may not be able to walk, complete loose sensation of his legs, his face and stomach is horrifying. If that weren’t enough, I would lose my bladder and bowel control as well. Just the thought of it makes your life horrible to live. Attending functions and parties is going to be a nightmare, just knowing that adds to the misery. So I prepared myself mentally to accept this disability, whilst not giving myself false hopes of overcoming it. It’s a part of my life, and I cannot do anything about it. It’s terrible, but it’s the way it is. You can’t complain or whine forever, you just have to deal with it, yourself. It was painstakingly difficult, but I accepted it and learnt how to live with it.
Tell us something about your bond with your karate coach, Mr Umesh Murkar.
He is as good a person as he is a coach. He also taught me so many other things, besides karate. He helped me with public speaking by boosted my confidence. After our practice, he tutored us on public speaking. He used to tell us to explain different styles of karate in a way that we were addressing a group of people. He also visited me in my rehabilitation centre when I was inflicted with an injury. I remember how we used to joke about wheelchair karate and how it got severe. Like we are trying to develop something like now I am in a wheelchair and so I cannot do kicks, but with his mastery, he is trying to think of how we can make some moves in a wheelchair. Our bond is remarkable that even after all this time we’ve kept in touch.
How has swimming and martial arts crafted you as a person?
Martial arts is not just martial arts, but a way of life for me. Martial arts is more than a coping mechanism for me. It’s torturous to even sit with a spinal cord injury. But in case of me, within a year and a half, I mustered the confidence of public speaking as I started socialising. I am still not able to engage in physical activities, but I’m still practising what I have learnt during my Yoga sessions and meditation sessions in my Karate class. They are helping me with my mental peace too.
Tell us about your experience in Global Sports Meeting Program (GSMP) in the U.S
Global sports meet is one of the best programs I ever attended on sports diplomacy. They made me feel empowered when I visited there. They help me to understand how to make awareness about sports diplomacy and how to create awareness on issues related to sports. They have motivated me to prepare my action plans on promoting sports. So I’ll be organising various sports camps and related activities and international sportspeople are also supporting me in this. All the three departments are supporting me so that I can qualify it as a life-changing event for me.
Tell us the story behind the forming of the Mumbai para-sports association.
Hailing from a sports background, I was aware that there were sports departments for international, national, state and district bodies. Which was not a case in para-sports. We do have international bodies but there are very less or no district bodies. So I suggested this idea to Mr. Rajaram Ghag that why don’t we bring or make a district level sports body that will help our para-athletes to showcase their talents. His vision met with mine, and we went ahead to create a para-sports association in Mumbai. I have also helped so many of my friends to form district-level bodies in various other districts.
How did you feel setting the record for the world's largest open water swim? Share with us your instantaneous feelings.
Without a doubt, one of the best moments of my life. Swimming in the open sea, that too alone and against the tyres, yeah it was difficult for me. Back in 2014, I did 6 km under 1 hour 40 min 28 seconds which was parallel to that, but this time due to 5 Kms against the tyres it was a challenging course for me. But it was worthwhile. The purpose of attempting this world record was to make sports more accessible for disabled people. Even the Dean of my university rescheduled my MBA exams, on my request to achieve this. In the end, it’s just a collaborative effort by supportive people. It was also to make beaches friendly for disabled people so that they can be lax on beaches. And thanks to that, Kaula beach is now made disabled-friendly. It really motivates you to do more for society.
How do you deal with your lows in life? What motivates you to get up and keep hustling?
Everyone goes downhill, and I’m no exception. My physical challenges pose a difficulty, added to the fact that I live away from my hometown. But I have promised myself that no matter what happens, I have to be very focused towards my goal. I try to conquer small goals, and that fills me with robust motivation. I once came across this Brazilian girl on my Canada trip. Her hands were amputated, but that did not stop her from swimming fantastically. It was very inspiring, and then I realised there are so many physically challenged people, who don’t let their disability define them. They go above and beyond their limitations and if they can do it, then what’s stopping me? That and my goal to represent my country in Paralympics motivates me to keep pushing.
What do you think can be done to improve para-sports in India?
Yes, it’s indeed a big challenge in India. Sadly, some people are still not acceptable for disabled people. I think the government should appoint someone who has experienced physical challenges to understand the situation better. The global sports mentoring program is already way ahead in organising such events. Like the national wheelchair basketball championship in 2018, they overlook 964 wheelchair participants. Now compare that to India. Forget possible; it’s hard even to imagine. I think the government encourages it from the schooling level. How they conduct Khelo India and Khelo India School Games, they should conduct Khelo India Para-games. They should also support para-athletes with scholarships and training. I’m sure with Storiyaan the word will go out among all dignitaries of our country so they could read it so that they can make something excellent for para-athletes in our country.
How have you been doing during this lockdown?
The lockdown has been interesting for me. A guy on a wheelchair, living with his 90-year-old dad. So guess who had to take the responsibility to cook food? I still remember getting comments on my chapati posts like shams ye kis country ka naksha hai? and shams, it’s okay, practice makes people perfect. But now, after 4-5 months, I have mastered the art of circular chapatis and delicious food. I ordered some accessories and equipment and now I’m doing my swimming training from home. Even my father joins in to do exercises and it’s fun and motivating. I’m in touch with so many interesting people through social media, and I’m glad that my social media accounts got verified as well. And yeah, a few days back I got a virtual award called Bihar Gaurav Award which is today’s paper’s headline as well- Bihar Paralympic committee confirmed just the previous day.
1. Sport other than swimming – Karate!
2. Favourite craving – seafood, I love seafood!
3. A place to spend a vacation – Los Angeles for sure!
4. Classical music or Indie- classical
5. Biggest fear- I guess my biggest fear would be blood, for it’s tough for me to see blood