Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I learned to run again during lockdown, but blade-running isn't easy: Para-shuttler Manasi Joshi

The 2019 world champion shuttler says she has three sets of prosthetics for walking, running and badminton. Having recently made it to the cover of Time and with a Barbie doll modelled on her, Joshi hopes her global recognition will break stereotypes, and help people to be inclusive and empathetic

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Nov 7, 2020 06:00:08 AM IST
Updated: Nov 6, 2020 05:04:52 PM IST

Manasi Joshi has her sights set on qualifying for the Paralympics. Image: HarshaVadlamani for Forbes India

In a month from now, Manasi Joshi will be celebrating the anniversary of a loss. It was nine years ago in December that the world champion para-shuttler, then a software engineer in Mumbai, had her left leg amputated after a horrific road accident en route to work. “I call it an ampu-anniversary. And I celebrate it because every life-changing event has to be celebrated,” says the 31-year-old from her home in Ahmedabad.

The icing on Joshi’s celebrations this year will be the twin recognitions that have come her way recently. The 2019 BWF para-badminton world champion recently featured on the cover of the prestigious Time Magazine as a next generation leader, while Barbie-makers Mattel modelled a one-of-a-kind doll on her in its global Role Models series that celebrates iconic women.

Joshi—who joins the ranks of tennis star Naomi Osaka, boxer Nicola Adams, artist Frida Kahlo and filmmaker Patty Jenkins, among others—is the second Indian sportsperson (after gymnast Dipa Karmakar) and the first Indian para-athlete to receive such an honour.

It’s been a long journey from 2011, when she spent 45 days in the hospital and was wheeled in for surgery every few days. Joshi, who trains at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad, now hopes her achievements will help bring in change not just for para-athletes but also for women who continue to battle stereotypes. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. What have you been up to during the pandemic months?
The lockdown was tough because I was restricted at home. And being a person with disability, that can be demotivating. So, my way of going out was taking turns with my two siblings to get groceries. Fitness wasn't even a priority at that time, but by and by, I started a fitness routine, using whatever equipment we had at home. I attended many webinars and posted some to motivate people too. Of course, I followed all social media trends that were happening, like making Dalgona coffee (even though it looked way better than it tasted...I'd rather go with my filter coffee).

Once the unlock phases started, I changed my routine. I started going long-distance cycling with my siblings to keep myself busy. Once inter-city travel opened up, I thought of learning something new...I got myself a running prosthetic leg and got into running, a skill that I had long forgotten.

Q. How’s that coming along?
It’s quite difficult and I don't know how para-Olympians run marathons with it. I have three sets of prosthesis—one for walking, one for badminton and now the third set for running. And one can't be used for the other. So I have to use multiple equipment for my day-to-day functions and pick up each skill separately.

Of course, we know how to run from childhood, but this kind of running is different—you have to balance yourself and I’ve fallen so many times while trying to run. Just a few days ago, I had a frictional burn from running and had to take a three-day break for my wound to heal. Besides, blade-running puts more stress on your back than normal running, so I needed to strengthen my back for a week and a half to avoid lower-back pain.

Running with prosthesis is a combination of multiple things, but [I am at it because] it’s going to help me in my fitness training for badminton and, most important, I’m learning a new skill.

Q. You’ve been featured on the cover of Time as a next generation leader and have had a one-of-a-kind Barbie modelled after you. What do these mean for you?
I see them as recognition for the work that I've been doing. I never thought something like these would be possible and sport will give me such visibility. I think it will change the perception the society has for people with disabilities--and there are so many stereotypes. I'm happy that I'm able to be a part of the change.

I attended multiple webinars during the lockdown and realised how difficult it is for women sportspersons to get recognition. There are always comments like “is tarah se khelo (this is how it should be played)”, or “tumhare idhar toh competition nahi hai (your discipline isn't competitive enough)”. I heard top women athletes speak about these and realised it's the same for everyone. And these are just for able-bodied women; for those with disabilities, there are many more stereotypes.

I hope the visibility I've got will help change those. Inclusion is imbibed through childhood and I hope if a child plays with the Barbie modelled after me, it'll change the way the future generation is going to be—more inclusive and empathetic.

Q. How difficult is it to make it big as a para-athlete—especially for a woman? What sort of stereotypes and challenges have you had to fight?
Para-sport in India is under-funded. India is a cricket-loving nation and has recently started loving badminton. But that love is for the able-bodied version. What do we know about para-sport? The Indian blind cricket team made it to the news for winning the World Cup, so did para-Olympians who won medals in 2016. But, by and large, funding is a problem.

We require support to buy prosthesis. My current walking prosthesis cost me about Rs 25 lakh and have to be replaced every five years. Sports prosthesis aren't covered by insurance. Plus, sports requires money for nutrition, diet, training etc. I'm thankful the Welspun Group has come to my rescue and supported me with the Welspun Super Sport Women Program.

The body of a person with disability needs to adapt to so many changes, not just physical but mental as well, and with day-to-day activities like walking or playing badminton. I used to work as a software engineer and I would move between my office and home in a rickshaw. As a result, I didn't have any time to look after my basic fitness through walking, something that would be natural for an able-bodied person. And so many stereotypes come with being a woman.

For instance, if someone is a bad driver, people assume it's a woman. I've heard people say my sport is easy because it's for the disabled. But we train the same as everyone else, for 6, 7, 8 hours a day, seven days a week. We put in the same effort as any other sportsperson does, and yet, there are times we are treated as second-class citizens. I wish to change this because I don't want the next set of players to also face these struggles. It's important for us to speak out and say it's not done.

Q. What sort of changes do you see in government policies and how can they be more inclusive?
There are some positive developments on that front. Previously we weren't given cash awards but now, at the Central level, we get equal cash awards. Of course, it has to change at the state level as well. But, say PV Sindhu wins the Olympic gold, she will get Rs 75 lakh by the central government, and so will we. So, there's equality in sports rewards. A few paralympians are also supported by the government's TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) and para-athletes are getting jobs too—I have now been employed by Bharat Petroleum.

But we require more funding since able-bodied badminton has five categories (men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles) and para-badminton has 22. There are many more athletes in para-badminton that are in need of support.

In October, American toy company Mattel released a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll modelled on Manasi Joshi, in a special collection celebrating role models. 

Q. From a road accident victim to a world champion, what are the important takeaways of this journey? How did you turn around from moments of despondency?
When I had the accident, I was 22 and a fresh college graduate with a number of plans. After the accident, my only ambition was to recover and walk. While my confidence had gone for a toss, I was overall a happy girl during my 45-day hospitalisation because I was thankful I was alive. At the hospital, I would be rolled into the operation theatre every few days, but I would go in with a smile thinking this surgery was only going to make me better, that my tomorrow was going to be better than yesterday.

[After discharge] I wanted to get back to my earlier life, where I would do a number of things—software, badminton, cultural pursuits, but I realised it was going to be a slow process. Once I could walk, I began playing as well. It was tough, but through the sport, I learnt how to balance myself and how to walk quickly. That increased my confidence. Sport helped me recover faster and it has changed my life. 

I learned many life skills through sport. It has taught me to accept a situation and to also work hard. My parents always told me to be the best in whatever I do. In sport, you not only have to be the best that you can be, but also better than the person you are playing against. It taught me competitiveness. My injury, on the other hand, taught me to be resilient, to persevere. I've also learnt so much through travel over the past two years. Like, I used to think language is an important tool to communicate. But now I realise it is your voice, and not the language, that should reach somewhere. Language is just a medium to express your opinion, it's more important that you express your opinion.

Q. What are the targets ahead for you?
I want to qualify for the Paralympics next year. Badminton has been introduced in the event and I want to win a medal there. Also, I have realised that sport gives you a voice and you need to use that responsibly. I want to be the voice of my sport, which is under-represented. I want to be vocal about raising awareness on road accidents like mine, which are completely preventable. One should work hard in whichever field they want, but not the way I had to after an injury. 

Q. The pandemic-induced lockdown has been mentally tough for both athletes and people in general. How have you tackled your mental health?
When the lockdown was first announced for 21 days, I thought it will pass soon. When it was extended and the second phase was announced, I realised I’ve been through a similar situation before when I was in the hospital for 45 days. In fact, this was much better as I was with my family in our home. I’ve been travelling so much since last year that I enjoyed being able to spend time with my family.

There were times when I felt I wasn’t feeling motivated enough to follow my athletic pursuits. I was anxious I wasn’t getting time to train, what if my competitors were leaving me behind? But, when I attended multiple webinars with athletes, I realised we were all in the same boat. That calmed me down.

I have a great support system in family and friends and I’ve been keeping myself busy and staying positive by speaking to people and doing online courses. And I’ve taken to gardening. And now that the season is changing and I am planting more and more, it keeps me occupied.