Glasgow Commonwealth Games, 2014. The giant screens at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre flashed the names of the competitors ahead of the 200-metre individual medley.
Niranjan Mukundan, who had been preparing hard for his first Commonwealth Games (CWG), was in a hospital bed in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) when the screen displayed his name. The 20-year-old man watched it helplessly on the television set installed in his room.
Mukundan had always dreamt of making a splash at the CWG but was forced to miss it due to constant high fever and neutrophil ulcers, which lead to a bone infection (osteomyelitis).
“The doctors strongly advised against entering the water for several weeks. I felt that it would be the end of my swimming career and that I would not be able to make a comeback,” Mukundan told South First.
Back in the pool
Eight years later, Bengaluru-born Mukundan was at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics (held in August-September 2021 due to Covid-19) to compete in the 50-metre butterfly.
The para-swimmer has 91 international medals to his credit and is hoping to soon enter the 100-medal club.
John Christopher, who has been coaching Mukundan since his childhood, attributed his disciple’s winning streak for the past 14-15 years to his mental toughness.
“Not many para-swimmers sustain this level of fitness for long. But his determination and focus are formidable.”
The coach added that Mukundan will enter the 100-medal club soon. “We are expecting three to four medals in the Asian Games,” he added.
A good year
Two weeks ago, Mukundan won four gold and a silver medal for Karnataka at the 2022 National Para Swimming Championship.
His events were a 50-metre butterfly, 100-metre butterfly, 400-metre freestyle, 4×100-metre relay and 4×100-metre medley.
“It’s always good to return to the nationals and race with the best in the country. I am glad about my performance. It was my responsibility to retain gold, which I have been doing for the past many years,” a delightful Mukundan explained.
Mukundan termed 2022 a “really good year” on the international stage. He finished the World Series in Germany with a silver and two bronze medals.
“My career-best performance came at the World Championship in Portugal where I broke two back-to-back national records in the 200-metre individual medley and 400-metre freestyle,” he said.
A month earlier in May, Mukundan had created history at the Para Swimming Cup in Prague, Czech Republic, by eclipsing the 12-year record held by South Korean swimmer Kim Sejin in the 800-m freestyle.
The Indian swimmer ended the Cup with six medals. He also won a bronze at the French Swimming Championship in June.
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The winning habit
Mukundan began his winning habit as a para-athlete in 2014 itself after the disease that had made him miss Glasgow CWG.
He won eight medals — three gold, two silver and three bronze — at the 2014 World Junior Swimming Championship in the United Kingdom.
The event was organised by the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS).
The same year, he secured a bronze at the Asian Para Games in Incheon, South Korea.
In 2015, he was honoured with Karnataka Rajyotsava Prashasti — the second-highest civilian award by the Karnataka government. A year later, he was honoured with the Eklavya Award for his outstanding performance.
Dominating the National Para Championships for around a decade now, Mukundan landed his first medal for India in 2013 at the IDM German Swimming Championship in Berlin, Germany. Incidentally, he now trains there with the German para swimming national team, besides representing a professional club there.
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One of the biggest moments came in his life came at the World Junior Swimming Championship in the Netherlands in 2015.
“I won 10 medals, including seven gold. I smashed many records and even today those records are intact. It was a proud moment for me and it can be called the turning point in my career,” Mukundan said.
The same year, India honoured him with the National Award for Best Sportsperson.
Michael Phelps, considered the greatest swimmer of all time, British swimmer Adam Peaty (world’s fastest breaststroker), Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu and Indian cricket legend Rahul Dravid are 28-year-old Mukundan’s favourite sportspersons.
A tough journey
Injuries have been a constant in Mukundan’s life. He was born with spina bifida — a birth defect in which an area of the spinal column doesn’t form properly — and clubfoot. He has undergone 19 surgeries so far in his life.
“I was paralysed below the waist when I was five and my parents used to carry me around. The doctors gave me a choice between swimming and horseback riding. I chose swimming,” he said.
“Initially, it was just for the recreation and strengthening the body,” Mukundan recalled, adding that the water gave him a surreal feeling and instilled in him a sense of freedom.
Soon, his parents enrolled him in a swimming facility at Jayanagar in Bengaluru. It was here that coach Christopher spotted him.
“I won my first medal in 2003-’04 while representing Karnataka at the sub-junior level,” Mukundan reminisced.
“I have never trained him as a special child or treated him differently,” Christopher said. “I told his parents, too, that if I give him special treatment, he will not perform at bigger events.”
Ulcers have been giving the para-athlete a tough time. “For around eight years, ulcers have made me miss several tournaments and probable medals. At the 2018 Asian Games (Jakarta, Indonesia) I fell sick and was flown back. That’s when I had my last corrective surgery since I had a bone infection” he said.
His family has been supportive of his endeavours. Mukundan said his grandmother has been a pillar of strength for him.
Mukundan felt parasports helped athletes like him to get society’s recognition.
“Awareness about parasports was less in society till a decade ago. It was then a big challenge since people did not know we were representing India and winning medals,” he said.
From four medals in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, India’s medal tally rose to 19 at Tokyo. For the first time, two para-swimmers from the country qualified for the games: Mukundan and Suyash Narayan Jadhav from Maharashtra.
“My event at the Paralympics was telecast early in the morning in India. Still, several people watched it and messaged me. It felt good as at times these are the small things you live for,” a cheerful Mukundan noted.
Comparing the sporting environment in Western nations with that of India, he opined that the athletes need constant support and not just during major sporting events.
Since 2012, GoSports Foundation, a Karnataka-based non-profit, has been sponsoring the swimmer.
First Indian to qualify for 4 events in WC
Mukundan loves to travel and considers it therapeutic. Right after the Guwahati Nationals, he visited Meghalaya.
“I love getting lost in a new country. After the CWG this year, I went to Spiti Valley. Some of the crazy things I did over the years was sky diving in Switzerland, a 14,000-feet jump from an aeroplane and chasing northern lights in Norway at -16 degree Celsius,” he chuckled.
Other than travelling, the athlete has a thing for movies and likes to enjoy pizza and gulaab jamun once in a while.
However, it is now the time of year that he has to start preparing for the pool for the year-long qualification trials of the 2024 Paris Olympics, which begins on 1 January.
“I start my pre-season preparations in mid-December every year. This would be my second Olympics and I am eyeing a medal here,” he sounded confident.
Meanwhile, Mukundan is also the first Indian to qualify in four different events for the 2023 Para-Swimming World Championship scheduled for July and August in Manchester, the United Kingdom. He will be competing in the 50-metre butterfly, 200-metre individual medley, 400-metre freestyle and 50-metre freestyle.
He has also qualified to compete in five events at the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games.