Capt Seshadri encountered a determined athlete in Madhu Bagri, who only believed in excelling no matter what the odds.
We watch Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal slug it out on the courts. Athletes supreme, fitness and endurance a byword in sport. And yet, even they are falliable, succumbing every once in a while, to mental fatigue and bodily injury. What then of a young woman, born with a disability, facing physical pain and psychological pressure and yet making a mark on the international tennis scene?
Infantile polio confined her to a wheelchair from the tender age of 18 months. Later, at age 11, a spinal surgery kept her in bed for three years. Her family literally gave up on her. But her spirit remained unchained. The indomitable spirit of Madhu Bagri, India’s first international woman wheelchair tennis player. A brave young woman who has faced extreme odds of being born different, into a family who knew next to nothing about coping with her problem, and a sibling with an outright abhorrence of her difference.
Madhu went through school but had to stop after her surgery; much against her desire, the family wanted her to quit studying further. Alone but undaunted, she pursued her studies through distance education and graduated in Commerce, undeniably proud of her academic achievement. Says Madhu: “That phase of my life was akin to waging a world war. Wherein I was at one end and everyone else at the other and the fight was bitter and brutal. Everyone including my family asked me to quit my studies and just accept life as it was. But I never gave up and I fought against all odds to complete my studies and I did so with flying colours.”
The Journey Begins
In her early years, she had always evinced a great deal of interest in sport, unfortunately never having heard about para sports or even imagined physically impaired people being able to indulge in any kind of sporting activity. Still, she used to spend hours in her backyard in Ahmedabad, in a wheelchair, playing badminton, and willing herself to reach the shuttle every time.
Having graduated and wanting to pursue a career, Madhu worked in a few organisations and even tried to venture out on her own in business. However, like her earlier years of study, her career journey too was not a pleasant one. Poor infrastructure, miles of red tape and an indifferent attitude by those around her were major stumbling blocks. The turning point in her life came about in 2012 when she decided to revive her long ignored but still burning passion for sport. It was only after she joined a badminton academy that she realised that there was something called sport for the disabled. She never looked back.
Although she had been playing badminton, tennis was her first love and it had been a dream to be able to play the game. A casual question by a coach spurred her to take up wheelchair tennis; within a few months of commencing training, she qualified to play international tournaments. Pramesh Modi, a tennis coach, spotted her ability and the fire in her to excel against odds. Under his tutelage, in a short span of three years, she won the national championship twice. From the time she took up the sport, she has participated in ten international tournaments, finishing second in one of them. In the process, Madhu Bagri has earned the distinction of being the first woman to represent India in a wheelchair tennis tournament for women and also the first to be ranked internationally in ITF wheelchair tennis.
Madhu has quietly lived on her own for the past 14 years or so, preparing to play more tournaments in the coming years. To further strengthen her muscles, she has taken to swimming, under the instruction of her coach. Her inspiration to dream and aim higher stems from the fact that not just differently-abled sports-persons, but even able-bodied people are motivated by her courage, enthusiasm and never say die spirit. Game, set and match indeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.