Having won World Swimming Championship in 2017, Double Gold in Para Swimming...
We have heard many inspirational stories of a small-town boy making big in their life and careers. But rarely we will come across stories where a small-town boy from Bihar, has made it to the world records not just once but thrice.
Meet Shams Aalam, who was once a Black Belt Karate Champion, and after the spinal injury went on to become a Para swimmer and a World record Open Sea Swimmer. With over 10 TEDx speeches, 3 books to his name, a documentary film, he is now not just an athlete. Life on the chair isn’t always easy, and he has had his own share of pains in life. However, he chose hope over despair and gave life another chance to look forward.
Life made Shams to sit down on a chair, but he has never sat still and works tirelessly to uplift many other para athletes overcome their problems in life.
In this candid conversation with Cynergy, Shams opens up on his inspiring journey and hopes that it will motivate people and inspire them to appreciate themselves and find a purpose in their life.
Do read and leave your comments below.
So, where are you putting up these days during Covid19?
Have been in Gurgaon from last one year, working as a Project Manager at Hella Automotive Pvt. Ltd. I am on a special project at Hella, working on a customized wheelchair for the disabled. I have a lot to contribute to this noble cause due to my mechanical engineering background, decent networking within the disabled community and my personal experience on this wheelchair. Nothing better than giving something back to community with whatever knowledge we have.
Tell us about your Journey from a small town Mahbubani to the cyber city Gurgaon
Laughs.!! As you already know, Mahbubani had been facing floods almost every year, and even as we are talking now, the city is under floods. In the last 60-70 years, not much has been done to control the floods there. You can call it an irony, but the kids living in that city learn swimming to save themselves from the flood. It comes very natural to them; else they won’t be able to survive. This is how I learnt swimming. There were a few ponds nearby, and even for playing I used to jump in the ponds and swim.
In our family, my grandfather was a wrestler and he had played at the state level across India. So, there was a driving factor somewhere and it used to inspire me a lot. My elder brothers went through their education in Madrassa, but family wanted me to pursue proper school education. Due to that a shift happened in life, and I moved to Mumbai and joined a BMC school. I was looking to do something in marshal-art and had a dream to become a karate champion. I started playing karate in a very disciplined manner and played at district level, school level, zonal level, and even national and international level. I have been a Mumbai university champion for 2 years, which isn’t an easy feat. University games are lot fun and very memorable.
Overall, I have around 50+ winning medals in Karate.
Shams during his Karate Days. Credit: https://www.shamsaalam.com/
And the jump from Karate to Swimming
In 2010, I won Silver in All India Karate Championship and was about to play Asian Games in China. But it seems destiny had some other plans for me. A Spinal Tumor was detected just before the selection, rendering me paraplegic from the chest down. Going through multiple surgeries wasn’t easy and it just quashed all my dreams of making it big in the world of Karate.
Doctors gave me lot of hope, but a wrong surgery costed me my entire career. I was advised by doctors that things will get better in 10-15 days, but months went by and nothing changed. Post an MRI, we realized that the tumor was never removed. It came shocking to us, as we felt cheated by the doctors, who are there to serve us.
That was the toughest phase of my life. It was the time when I was planning to go professional, work & earn money for my family. But life had some other plans. We ended up spending all money on the surgeries, and with no hope in sight and life was a standstill for me. I am thankful to god & my mother who supported me throughout this period. She kept telling me to believe in god and many new doors will open for me.
During my physiotherapy sessions, I met Mr. RajaRam Ghag, a wheelchair bound athlete, who swam across the English Channel in 1988. Mr. Raja inspired and motivated me to pick up swimming professionally even as a paraplegic person. So, this is how my journey started in Swimming professionally in 2012.
Tell us about your struggle in those 2 years’ time and how did you overcome it.
My mind never felt like leaving sports, even during those troubled times. Just counting days and living with the hope of recovery, I ensured that I remain strong mentally. There were moments of frustrations as I had to drop many tournaments in those 2 years, my body was not with me as the entire lower body was not responding to any senses. All these were adding to my anxiety. Used to read and spend lot of time on researching a lot on possibilities in life after this.
During my physio sessions, I used to participate in some sports, which ensured that my interests are balanced. I used to motivate lots of others to play sports, helping them in coming out of depression & anxiety.
Somewhere I felt that Karate taught me that life skills which helped me get out of the depression. My karate teacher, friends used to visit me, inspire me with the positivity of the past. It’s all because of that I have recovered and am able to establish myself as a professional swimmer.
And, what motivated you to try Open Sea Swimming?
Laughs. Yes, that’s also a journey in itself.
I was inspired a lot by Mr. Rajaram Ghag, who had swum the English Channel in 1988. English Channel in swimming is like climbing a Mount Everest.
That got me started with Sea swimming first. Around Dec 2013, I started with a 5km Sea Swimming in Mumbai first but couldn’t complete that run. After that I did a 2kms Sea Swimming in Malwan, which I could complete with ease. That 2km run gave me immense confidence to take forward this passion. In 2014, I participated in a 6kms open sea swimming contest, organized by the Indian Navy. I felt so good doing that, as I completed that 6kms stretch in 1hr 40 mins, which is a record in itself and is listed in the Limca book of records.
Shams during Open Sea Swimming Competition. Credit: https://www.shamsaalam.com/
In 2017, there was 8kms open sea swimming competition in Goa (Sinquerium-Baga-Candolim). It was very challenging as the first 5kms were against the tide and rest 3kms was parallel to tide. I took around 4hrs to complete that run, which for me seemed very long. But later I realized that it’s a world record and even been recognized by World record academy. Later that got published in the Limca book of records too.
After all this, I thought of attempting river swimming and nothing can be better than doing it in Sacred Ganges, in my native area, Patna. Around Dec 2019, I participated in 2kms Ganga Swimming run and completed that in 12 mins and 23 secs, which is the fastest swimming by any paraplegic. It is being verified by Limca and Guinness book of records and soon will be in the books.
And you next mission in life.
Tokyo Olympics 2021, World Swimming Championships, Asian Games in 2022 are on my radar. I want to win gold for the country, not just represent.
My mission is also to inspire, motivate, provide a helping hand to those from the disabled community. I am very closely connected with this community and always working to uplift them by the means of sports and giving them a right platform. With this mission, I registered Parasports Foundation in Mumbai, which is helping lots of Divyang move forward in their life. We have done games at district level, state level where the para athletes get their chance to showcase their skills.
Tell us about your family.
We are 4 brothers & 2 sisters.
In 2018, while I was Asian Para Games, my mother took her last breath. Thankfully, I managed to reach here for her last rites. She had always inspired me, even during her last times. She asked me to go and play for the country and not to worry for her. She used to say - If you are serving the nation, you are serving your mother. Those words still resonate with me even now.
Shams with his father, Credit: https://www.shamsaalam.com/
Currently I stay with my father and we help each other in everything we do.
From “Shams the athlete” to the “Shams the brand”.
Laughs...! I have always believed in strong and crisp communication. I had to find my way here, as initially people thought that, I can’t speak English coming from Bihar. I used to be very active in student cells during university days. During my MBA, I realized that I can use my communication to reach out to masses. After that I started vising schools, college, universities as a motivational speaker. With that, I also started getting active on Social media and doing live sessions.
Shams at TEDx Lucknow. Credit: https://www.shamsaalam.com/
With some experience under me, corporates approached me and even paid me well for the sessions. I now realize that I have a market & brand value, and the work I do, is in a way helping people coming out their depression, stress and anxiety.
In 2018, I received an email from the US Department of Global Sports that I have been selected as the best emerging leader in disability sports & sports diplomacy. I am now a star alumnus of Global Sports Program, which gives me immense reach in universities worldwide.
Shams at the US Consulate. Credit: https://www.shamsaalam.com/
I am now getting emails, requests from all over the world about giving live sessions, lectures etc. Till date, I have given 10 TEDX talks which itself is a record by a single person and that too by an athlete with disability.
There have been 3 books written on my life story, one documentary film which has been made and many more which are in pipeline. I am being selective now as I need to focus on my sports too.
Any corporate sponsorships or endorsements
I am much thankful to Hella. I was giving a speech at Hella, and after their director asked me to join them. They have given all the facilities so that I can keep sports as my first priority. They have done much for me and have been very sensitive towards me and my sports.
CynergyServices wishes Shams Aalam and his family, a safe health & a great 2020. We thank him for his time & the support to the community.
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