P Madhavi Latha: On wheels of resilience

Gopalakrishnan R | Updated on January 31, 2020

Play on: P Madhavi Latha is currently the president of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India   -  IMAGE COURTESY: P Madhavi Latha

Twelve years ago, the para-athlete was given a year to live. She, however, chose to sculpt her own destiny and is now a national-level swimming champion and a basketball administrator

At 49, P Madhavi Latha is more at home in water than on land. Water didn’t just give her a second shot at life, it brought her recognition. A para-athlete with around 30 national and state-level swimming medals in her kitty, she remembers vividly the day she heard that she had just a year more to live. She was 37 then.

It was meant to be a regular check-up for severe back pain. But Latha, who had been diagnosed with polio when she was seven months old, was shocked to learn the doctor’s prognosis.

“The doctor saw my x-ray and didn’t say anything to me. Instead he told his assistant that my scoliosis [spinal abnormality] will worsen. In six months’ time, I won’t be able to sit, and in another six, I won’t be able to breathe,” Latha tells BLink.

Surgical intervention was fraught with risks, so Latha and her parents opted for alternative treatment methods such as homoeopathy and physiotherapy. But what saved her in the end was hydrotherapy — exercises in a pool. Buoyancy allowed her to stand and walk in water. Gradually she regained muscle strength and her lung capacity grew.

A wheelchair user, she experienced a never-before sense of freedom in water. She wanted to learn swimming, but found no willing instructors. So she learnt it on her own.

Within three years, Latha began competing with able-bodied swimmers at a corporate Olympiad event in Chennai. It was her eureka moment; one which gave her a glimpse of her potential. To top it off, she was recognised as the ‘Most Encouraging Sportsperson’ at the event.

The very next year, in 2011, Latha won three gold medals at the National Para Swimming Championships in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. She would add over two dozen medals to that tally over time.

Water born: Latha has around 30 national and state-level swimming medals in her kitty   -  IMAGE CREDIT: P Madhavi Latha


“I wasn’t into sports as a child. So winning the nationals at 40 was an unbelievable feeling,” Latha says. “If sports could make me confident and energetic, I thought of the wonders it could do to youngsters.”

Latha launched her ‘Yes We Too Can’ initiative for people with disabilities. She started off by giving talks at schools and colleges.

“Had I started [physical activities] in my childhood, I could have been in a better condition now,” she says.

Born and brought up in Sathupally, a small town in Khammam district of Telangana, neither Latha nor her four siblings received polio vaccination. While the others managed to escape the virus, Latha was not so lucky. However, the sportswoman prefers to see the positive side. “My parents brought me up like a princess. Maybe because of my condition, I got more attention than my sisters!” says the daughter of a retired high school headmaster and a homemaker.

Her parents instilled in her the desire to be financially independent early on. A bright student, she attended school till Std 10, after which she studied privately and acquired a graduate degree in Mathematics. Thereafter, Latha found a job in Hyderabad and later moved to Chennai with her parents to join a multinational banking group.

While Latha may have already fulfilled her parents’ wish to see her financially independent, her journey had in fact just begun.

Having discovered joy and a spirit of competition through swimming, Latha wanted to compete in the national championships. But before she could do so, she had to help set up the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu. As its founding general secretary, Latha was instrumental in launching initiatives that introduced swimming to more than 300 persons with disabilities in Tamil Nadu. “Some of them went on to compete at the national and international levels too,” Latha says.

Later, the UK-based non-governmental organisation Choice International reached out to her, seeking her help in conducting a wheelchair basketball workshop in India. Having exceeded her ambitions in the pool, Latha was intrigued by the comparative benefits of this new sport. “Team sports help cultivate leadership skills. When you know you have a teammate waiting, it forces you to play with dedication,”Latha says.

In 2014, Latha, along with social activist Kalyani Rajaraman, founded the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI). Over the past five years, WBFI, of which Latha is currently the president, has organised six national championships and sent Indian wheelchair basketball teams to four international events. Last year, the Indian men and women’s teams took part in the Asia Oceania Zone Championships and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Qualifiers held in Pattaya, Thailand.

New game, new role: WBFI president P Madhavi Latha with the Indian contingent at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Qualifiers   -  IMAGE COURTESY: P Madhavi Latha


While the women’s team didn’t win any matches, the men managed a win over Indonesia at the Asia Oceania Championships.“We lack international exposure. The fact that we were able to send our teams is an accomplishment in itself,” she says.

The Indian wheelchair basketball teams, Latha points out, face many challenges, including shortage of specially designed sports wheelchairs.

Under Latha’s leadership, the WBFI recently launched a mentorship programme where corporate leaders work with wheelchair basketball players and help them professionally.

On the personal front, Latha continues to battle an incurable degenerative condition called post polio syndrome. “I’m still trying to stay independent and maintain my health. I want to continue to support people with disabilities,” Latha says.

Gopalakrishnan R is a Bengaluru-based writer and founder of Ekalavyas, a basketball promotion company

Published on January 30, 2020

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