Fourteen-year-old Riya Gupta was one of the finest swimmers in her school and received accolades mastering all four strokes of the sport. Like many youngsters, she thought she was invincible, until she suffered a spinal cord injury which permanently paralysed her below the neck.
During a practice session a week before an inter-school competition, when forced to dive in the swimming pool with water level as low as three feet, her head banged against its floor, leaving her a quadriplegic and wheelchair-bound.
That fateful afternoon of September 5, 2007 changed her life.
The school authorities informed Riya’s parents about the pool mishap, after which she was immediately taken to the Jaipur Golden Hospital in Rohini, where she was kept in the intensive care unit for almost a week.
As the school authorities expressed their inability to share the costs of the treatment after she was discharged from the hospital a month later, Manoj Gupta, Riya’s father, decided to move court.
In 2012, the court asked the school to give Riya Rs8.5 lakh as compensation for the damage caused to her due to the sheer negligence on part of the institution.
“Legally, the matter is settled now, but what might remains unchanged is her condition,” said her mother Rajrani Gupta who has been providing her round-the-clock nursing care and has been her biggest supportive system. “Initially we would struggle to console her, but now she has accepted it and wants to focus on the bright side of life.”
Now nineteen, Riya has moved on. She has been part of a wheelchair rugby team for the past five years. Her eyes lit up as she gaily talked about her maiden international trip to South Korea where she and her team represented India in the Paralympics Games in November 2013.
Also known as Quad Rugby, the sport is unknown to Indian masses. Meant for quadriplegics, it was first introduced here by Jonathan Sigworth, an American who suffered the same injury as a unicycler in Mussoorie as a teenager. Sigworth is also the co-founder of Empowering Spinal Cord Injured Persons India Trust, an organsiation which aims at breaking down stereotypes of being disabled by making spinal cord injured persons independent in their lives. Wheelchair rugby is one of the catalysts.
Riya learnt about the sport while undergoing physiotherapy treatment at Indian Spinal Cord Injury Centre in Vasant Kunj in 2008. Six years down the line, she is gradually overcoming the psychological trauma post injury.
“I was heartbroken when my school friends stopped talking to me because of the fear of my teachers, but now most of them are friends with me on Facebook,” she said while showing the tournament pictures on her computer.
Riya participated in the online Miss Wheelchair competition in June this year, but could not win it for which she blames her poor promotion skills. “I did not appeal to my friends and relatives to vote for me,” she said with a laugh.
Watch her life in action through these photos: