Deepa Malik has been a champion long before she became the first Indian female athlete to win a medal at the Paralympics, where she bagged a silver at the shot put F-53 event in Rio. The 45-year-old was the oldest member of the Indian contingent, but that is far from being the only remarkable aspect about her journey.
A paraplegic, Malik is a pioneer in the field of para-sports in India. "I want to use this medal to support women with disabilities in India," she said after her win.
Malik has been paralysed waist down since 1999, when a surgery to remove a tumour in her spinal cord made it impossible for her to walk. Her achievement is made only more extraordinary by the fact that she has had three spinal surgeries, has no sensation below her chest, and no bladder or bowel control.
With the support of her husband and two daughters, Malik chose to pursue her passion for sports and fitness by starting her athletics career in her late 30s. In 2009, she switched from para-swimming to para-athletics, training in javelin, shot put and discus throw. In the process, she proved that neither age nor her physical handicap would be a barrier in pursuing her dreams.
Malik's victory before Brazil has been preceded by years of hard work, and a series of medals at national and international sporting events. In 2010, she became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Para-Asian Games, where she received a bronze. In 2014, she followed it with a silver medal at the same event. She also won silver in the shot put and discus throw events at the 2011 World Championships. In 2012, she became first sportsperson in the severely handicapped category to get the Arjuna award.
She has been a vocal spokesperson for changing people's attitude towards paraplegia and disability. "The first thing paraplegics do is stay indoors. They must understand it is all right to be paralysed. You are alive, so live your life to the fullest. I agree we have a bladder and bowel issue, but there are ways and means of managing it. The world is there for you, provided you are ready for the world," she said in an interview with The Indian Express.
Malik is also an avid biker, rally car driver and businesswoman. She has four Limca records to her name, one for driving across a distance of 1700 km in the Himalayas for nine consecutive days in her customised car, and another for swimming against the current in the Yamuna river for one kilometre in Allahabad. She also ran a restaurant in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra for seven years, before closing it down to focus on sports training. The spunky athlete even appeared in two seasons of the reality show, MTV Roadies.
"Life is not over...disability is only a state of mind," Malik has famously said about her extraordinary journey — and proved herself right over and over again.
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