Mohammad Shams Aalam on perceived insurmountable odds

A paraplegic swimmer from Bihar who lives in Mumbai, Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh shines with immense mental strength. The affinity towards sports runs through his veins; his grandfather was a known wrestler in Bihar. Shams’ journey has taken him across some exceedingly harrowing paths, but his determination to design his life for the best never left him. A record-holding paraplegic swimmer, Shams' latest achievement was to break his own records as he swam 8 kilometres into in the open sea at Goa. Having represented India globally on numerous paralympic sporting platforms, he currently ranks 4th in Asia and 27th in the world. By taking us through the stories that have made him everything he is, Shams reminds us to chase what we love with everything we got - and ride on the highs that life sends our way, because we most certainly will need it to get through the lows.

Mohammad Shams Aalam

Shams knew that he wanted to be a sportsperson even before he knew it had a term. Not enchanted by academics, he took a leap of faith by leaving his home and moving to Mumbai with his older brother. Money had always been an issue but never been an issue at the same time, as Shams sought ways to fulfil his dreams. Then a karate player, he juggled between school, hectic Mumbai commutes and karate lessons. His first coach was Mr. Umesh Murugan in 2001 - in the 9 years that passed, Shams has kicked and punched his way through several national and International championship including Nepal in 2006, to win 54 medals.

Paraplegic Swimmer

This might sound like the conclusion to a happy little story, but it is merely the beginning. When what looked like an innocent back pain quickly graduated to near incapacitation, Shams was found to have a tumour on his spine. Two surgeries and several very painful months later, the man was effectively given the label of a paraplegic and sentenced to a wheelchair.

When trying to rebuild the pieces of his life, the universe threw him a life raft. Enter Rajaram Ghag. Polio had stolen the use of his legs long ago, but the man went on to become the first Asian to swim across the English Channel! This interaction was a turning point in Shams’ life. At the Mahatma Gandhi Swimming Pool (Dadar) where he was initially not granted permission, little crowds started flocking to see the man conquer the laps with no aid whatsoever. Hours and hours of daily practice translated into medal after medal won at various paralympic sporting events.

Mohammad Shams Aalam paraplegic swimmer

Like dense rainforests attracting the rainclouds, Shams’ immense hard work finally gained him some much needed gifts from the universe. Satyabhama College in Chennai offered him a full scholarship to pursue his MBA in 2014. They didn’t just encourage his education but were absolute cheerleaders to his swimming career as well. The facilities provided by the college served as a gateway for Shams to swim (and win!) in Canada in 2016, which upped his rank and in turn gained him participation in the Germany World series. Shams outperformed himself every single time, fuelled by the combination of determination and gratefulness.

It has not been an easy climb. Governmental support for athletes in India is next to non-existent, which has driven Shams to become heavily involved in giving back to the community. Be it through relentless encouragement, organisation of fundraisers, participation in events or simply by always being there, Shams has made it possible for para athletes, especially swimmers like Nisha Gupta, Adil Ansari and Oliver D’Souza to garner strength to realise their full potential.

After 7 years, Shams was emerging on the winning side of his battle with disability and depression. As if to commit this moment to memory, Shams seized an opportunity (or co-created it, rather!) and broke his own record swimming in the open seas. At a festival organised by UMOJA, an organisation that facilitates travel for the differently abled, broke his existing Limca record and swam 8 kilometres into the open sea in an attempt to raise awareness to make beaches accessible to differently-abled people as well. This beautiful and incredibly brave action, almost going against nature but also so poetically with it, is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of human connection.

“I am very emotional in these things. If I have something, I will definitely help people; the differently abled people. Because whatever I am, it is because of people. Had Satyabhama not happened, I would not have been able to go on my tour, would not have been able to complete my MBA. Had it not been for Rajaram Ghag, I would not have been able to pursue a swimming career.”

Shams is going to continue to swim and channel his energies into making India easy to access by the differently-abled. This is how he chooses to make a change in his little corner of the world; and what a much-needed change it is!