“Choices are the hinges of destiny.” — Edwin Markham
But in the summer of 1999, Deepa Malik had no choice. She had to undergo a surgery, to remove a tumour in the spinal cord, which was potentially life-threatening and even if she survived she would be paralysed below the chest and thus have to adjust to being a wheelchair user.
She was fortunate to make it through. But now, she had a choice to make. Probably, the choice that would go on to define the rest of her life. She could accept her physical condition as her destiny or she could choose a rebirth by defying the odds. At the crossroads of life, she chose the path less travelled and that has made the difference.
Deepa Malik started her sports career at 36, an age where most athletes are in the twilight of their career. But that has not stopped her from becoming one of the most decorated paralympic athletes in India, who even won silver in shot put at the Rio Paralympics in the F53 category.
But she was primarily into javelin. She hoped to represent India in Rio in this sport until it was announced that javelin has been replaced by shot put in her category. After three years of perseverance went up in smoke, she had another choice to make - to learn shot put or just let it be. Malik took the challenge and as they say, the rest is history.
However, after spending close to two decades as an athlete, she decided to wear a different hat and was elected as the President of the Paralympic Committee of India in February 2020.
So what was her motivation for moving into sports administration?
"I have mostly won all the medals as a responsible athlete for my country. I have won the Asian Games, the World Championships, have also broken records, and have a paralympic medal in Rio. I have always found myself as a sports activist rather than a sports person, leading a change. I could make that change whenever I won a medal. I would then force some policies to be changed or create some awareness for para-sport. How sports can empower people with disability. So that was a major motive." Deepa Malik to the Olympic Channel.
For Malik, momentum was moving in the right direction. She continued:
"The federation has been bringing about a positive change where they are willing to take an athlete-centric approach and keep athletes as the centre of their plans. The shift was happening and I felt I can contribute to it, giving back to the sport that has given me so much. As an athlete, I could bring a few changes then as an administrator, in the leading role, I can definitely contribute more with my experience as an athlete - like what do athletes want and be their voice.
“Once this position was being offered it was a good opportunity to fill in the gap and if the federation itself wants an athlete in the lead role and a person who comes from the severe most disability categories, then that itself sensitises them and the system to the needs of the athletes. My governing body members have been very supportive from day one and because of the great team work, my job has become a lot easier," she further explained.
Moreover, she was staring at a long break of three years since shot put has been replaced with discus in the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics. She had been training discus and even won a bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta. But frequent injuries meant her doctors advised her to stay away from the sport.
"While practising discus I realized that my body does not take the anti-gravity side jerk. When I am holding it halfway on my shoulder height the pressure is coming at my cervical region and my surgery is just between cervical and thoracic. It is a very delicate point and my doctors advised against the sport as I was getting neck injuries again and again. So I had to give up," she elaborated.
As the President of PCI, she has her role clearly mapped out in her head. She is aware of the challenges involved and is ready to take them head-on. While the current pandemic situation has further complicated matters for her, her unflinching resolve for excellence has helped turn the adversity into another opportunity.
"My career has been full of challenges. Be it to be the first biker, first swimmer, first rally-ist, first Asian medallist in athletics, first world championship, and now I am the first athlete-president of the federation. That too at such a challenging time with no other precedent to follow. I had to dig my own well and drink my own water. It was a lot of learning. We all were learning the new normal.
Not for the first time, Malik managed to transform a significant setback into a positive experience:
"I am happy that we could utilise the time and create sciences around our sports through webinars. These webinars also became like a referral coursebook as each one has been uploaded and each webinar is about different aspects of sciences that people are not familiar with. There a lot of coaches who are interested but they really don't know what exactly it is about. It is the same javelin throw, the same shot put but with a little difference.
“So what is the difference, which means the different medical categories as per the disabilities, the types of assistive aids, the rulings around throw tools, how the same event is held in different categories. We created webinars and we put them out for ready reference. There have been talks on injury management, diet, proper mental well-being courses, and we also put out videos of athletes working out in their homes which inspired other athletes. So this was a buffer time to get connected to my athletes and also to the various state bodies."
But her change in role has mostly consigned her to the four walls of a room. Being the President, she has to chair meetings, frame policies, meet government officials and dispense other responsibilities that demand her to remain off the track.
Nevertheless, Malik is happy doing so, as she believes through her capacity she could bring many more athletes to come out of their rooms.
"It is pretty ironic that the very journey from disability to ability began when everybody told me that my life would end in a room. I will never be able to step out of a room. I said that I will not stay in a room, I will go outdoors. Be it swimming, biking or rallying, I was always out on the field. But chairing meetings has taken me back inside a room. I am back to square one but in a good way. I am getting more people on 'will chair' to come outdoors. So I am getting indoors to get many people outdoors. From there they should rise and empower them."
She has excelled as an athlete and has been a woman extraordinaire with her on-field exploits. Before Rio, she was busy preparing only herself in the run-up to the Games, and now she has the responsibility of the entire Indian contingent that is gearing up for Tokyo.