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How Nir Bahadur Gurung beat all odds to emerge a winner

Armyman recovered from a crushed spine and shrugged off suicidal thoughts to emerge as a highly successful paraplegic athlete on the world stage

Nir Bahadur Gurung too had a vision of winning many awards and decorations for bravery. A proud but illiterate Gurkha, a native of Nepal, he overcame abject poverty to somehow come to Darjeeling and join the Gurkha Regiment with dreams in his eyes. He made it into the army but then fate played a hand.

Nir Bahadur Gurung
Nir Bahadur Gurung

His spine was crushed in a freakish accident when he was barely past his teens, when tons of ammunition fell on him with such force that his rifle, too, broke. Yet, barring a brief period when he thought of committing suicide, he decided to tackle life head on.

Nir was born in Shillong on 11 March, 1958. His father was a soldier with the British Indian Army. One day in December 1977 his father's younger brother, a soldier in the Indian Army, convinced Nir to join up. His training finished in July 1978 and Nir shifted to Panagarh in West Bengal where the regiment was transferred. Nir however was soon sent to Shillong for an extensive driver's course.

Fate however had sinister designs in store for Nir. The date was 13 January, 1983 his unit had been asked to take trucks filled with live ammunition for field firing practice to Hoshiarpur, some 40km away. Nir was not driving the truck but was sitting inside along with other soldiers, guarding the ammunition.

The truck passed through an area called Chakkivan. The road was not good and, from the top of the hill, with the rock face on the driver's side, the truck slid on the dangerous icy surface, as the driver lost control and the brakes also failed.

Four soldiers killed
Four soldiers were killed instantly as the heavy ammunition boxes, some weighing up to 300 kilos, fell on top of them, crushing their skulls. Nir did not die, but later wished he had. His skull was fractured and was bleeding, two ammunition boxes fell on his spine, shattering it, and he also had fractures in his arms.

The impact was so severe that his rifle was broken and bent in two places. Nir (25 then) lost consciousness and woke up at the Pathankot Command Hospital. "I saw that my whole body was plastered. I was told that I had eight major fractures. I could not move and was in excruciating pain all the time. I was not told that my spine had been totally damaged and since I could not feel much of my body as all of it was covered by the plaster, I did not realise that I would never walk again in my life.

Nir spent almost two years at the Army Hospital in Lucknow, but each night he had nightmares. He started thinking of ways to commit suicide but realised that in the hospital this was not going to be simple. Thirty months after the horrendous accident, Nir shifted to the Pune Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre of the Indian Army and started building a new life for himself.

"The army provided coaches for all sorts of games. And since I was not literate, a new vocation was not cut out for me, but I thought why not use my strength and take part in wheelchair races. So I used the huge compound racing from one corner to the other."

As for sports, he tried many but started to play table tennis. In November 1986, he came to know that the army would send a contingent to the National Sports Championships for Paraplegics, to be held in Bombay in January 1987. On his debut he won the gold medal in the 100 metres race.

From then on there was no looking back. Nir broke all sorts of records at the national level. From 1987 till 2010 he won fifty-nine medals in track-and-field events, including 33 gold and 25 silver medals. The events include wheelchair races, and the three throws, namely, javelin, discus and shot-put. Nir wanted to win international medals for India at the Asian and world levels.

Start of it all
In 1994, Nir learnt about the Far East South Pacific (FESPIC) Games held every four years. He swore to himself that in the next FESPIC games in 1999, to be held at Bangkok, he would win a medal in his classification. Each day was spent in at least a 100 shot-put throws, and 200 discus and javelin throws. Nir came fifth in javelin and missed the discus throw bronze by one place. The shot-put line-up was the last and he knew it was now or never.

There were 22 competitors. His very first throw put him in contention for a place in the top four. He qualified for the finals on the strength of that one throw and then went 16 cms better to slot himself in third place, which eventually won him the bronze medal. Delighted and in tears at the sight of the Indian flag being unfurled at the medals ceremony, Nir also vowed that in next FESPIC games at Busan in South Korea, he would win at least two medals.

"I was ready to shed blood for the country. The first event was javelin and my throw of 15.12m was challenged by only one athlete. But after six throws I still maintained second position and won a silver. In discus, too, my throws were big, with my best effort after the sixth throw being 19.30m, good enough for a silver. And on the final day my favourite shot-put was on.

"The Chinese and Koreans were very strong, leading all the way. I entered the finals of last eight athletes at the fifth position and had three more throws to go. In my anxiety I cut the line in the first throw and was faulted with a red flag going up. When my turn came again I threw only 6.30m. This was disappointing as I was still in the fifth position.

"My turn came again. It was now or never. I thought of my family and our goddess in Nepal whom we worshipped. I prayed for strength and asked the goddess to give me that one chance so that I could bring glory for my country. And in true Gurkha style with the war cry on my lips I grunted and threw the iron ball with all my strength.

I touched 6.66m. I had won my third silver medal. I had in my own humble way created history and brought pride to India. I had repaid my debt to India and to the Indian Army which had looked after me so well."

1983
The year in which Nir Bahadur crushed his spine after a road accident at Chakkivan (Punjab)

Excerpts from Courage Beyond Compare - how ten athletes overcame disability and adversity to become champions by Sanjay Sharma. Published by Rupa Publications. Price: Rs 295.

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