Sunday, March 21, 2010

Looking Up at Down's.....

I reached there about 5.30 pm yesterday. Spread out before me , was a 25 metre pool, its water a blue azure, not seen at too many pools in Mumbai. The entire pool was longitudinally split into lanes, and in each lane, folks were swimming up and down , lap after lap. At the deep end , at the head of each lane were some folks sitting and marking laps as each person in a lane completed them..

This is our Institute pool, and various events are held there throughout the year, besides daily batches. The Swimmathon, which I had come for, was a 12 hour, non-stop swimming event, that would begin at 5 pm and go on till Sunday dawn, at 5 am. You went back and forth continuously and stopped for predefined hydration breaks and so on. Lest anyone get the idea that our pool is a kind of a Slow Senior Swimming Heaven, let me hasten to add, that I wasn't participating, but my daughter was.

I duly landed up suitably armed with bags full of liquid hydrating nutrition, of various varieties. Along with some chocolates. And settled in for an exciting night amidst chlorine smells and occasional unintentional sprays of water....

A long stint of staying for 30 years in one area, and a daughter who has been training at the pool since a child, in single digit years, means that I end up knowing lots of folks there. I don't accompany my daughter to the pool now like I did when she was younger. I think she's grown up, she thinks that I cramp her style.

And so I put down all my stuff near the high diving area, and went around to say hi to folks.

I saw a colleague from the old days at the end of another lane, and turned out that her son was participating. A searching glance in that lane and I saw a young fellow in a multicolor speedo cap and goggles, pacing slowly trough the lane , freestyling with great effort . Full of concentration, he kept at it, oblivious to all kinds of folks speeding beside him.

R, the son, is a special child. He has Down's syndrome. I would see him as a youngster, riding pillion on his mother's two wheeler, as he attended various types of vocational schools. In 2005, he joined a beginners swimming camp on campus, during summer. In early 2006, he simply participated in the first Swimmathon of his life. And has never looked back. Every year , he participates , and completes the twelve hour swimming. Like all children , he needs a bit of cajoling when he has his off moments in the pool, or he gets tired, and the fact that his parents attend these meets with great enthusiasm, always helps.

Down's syndrome is all about slowing of development of various kinds. Normal people , go through a storm of defiant emotions, when they see themselves being overtaken by more powerful swimmers, and someone urging them to continue in the race. And here was this chap, going at his own speed, one arm over , then the other, feet kicking, making a slow determined progress , lap by lap. Occasionally he would reach the edge, look up at his folks, and someone would pass him a sipper bottle. Energized, remotivated, with encouragement from so many around, he would push against the wall, and take off again, on a slow crawl to the other side.

Several participants left before the 12 hours got over. Some left within 8 hours, out of boredom. Some left as there wasn't anyone standing around applauding them and encouraging them; some took advantage of the coach going in for a short meeting , to escape from the pool. Every now and then some of the kids would hang on to the ladders, and sip their stuff, demanding something new each time, and we would see a bunch of parents coming and going at short intervals. Someone would a blow a warning whistle and the swimming would continue once again.

But R, is almost like a Swimmathon veteran. He doesn't go all out physically from the word "go" . He thinks and he conserves energy. Looks like he is in a steady state level, as lap after lap, with great effort, he maintains an unchanged, as they say in cricket, line and length. Kind of swimming in the zone , as it were.

21st of March. The Swimmathon draws to a close in the early change of lights in the sky, mobilizing for another hot sweltering day in Mumbai. The closing whistle blows , and the desperate last minute sprint to reach the deep end happens. The background music playing popular hits comes to a stop, and the coach asks everyone to relax in the water. And then gather on the pool deck.

R is amongst the student swimmers, gathered at the shallow end. The coach announces that in the history of our Swimmathon, this time we have had the maximum amount of folks sticking on, swimming away, till the last 12 hr completion whistle blew. Applause. Then he asks the swimmers to come out. R is given the honor of leading the guys. The participants in the pool, the parents cheering everyone the whole night, the pool staff, the student organizers , even the public-address-system personnel shake his hands . The coach pats his back. And he returns to the folds of a family who hand him a towel, rub him vigorously to warm him, and he goes off to change with all the other guys.

A slow, steady, extremely dedicated 9.6 kilometres in 12 hours.

Opinions vary about educating those with Down's Syndrome. There are special schools. There are special vocational skills taught. There are wonderful schools in Mumbai, that train these children in crafts and some industries that have a sense of pride in placing orders for things with these schools, as well as absorbing these children as some part of their work force. And there is a school of thought that says integrate these children into normal schools. Whenever and however possible.

Sometimes it's not just about lessons. He is a great learner. He is wonderfully trained in not just swimming, but also in the art of certain handicrafts. A family friend is now giving him daily lessons to teach him English.

I don't think anyone in our pool has been reading up on all these theories. They just think that's the way it has to be. R has always been a great part of our Swimmathons ever since he learnt swimming along with the other campus children , as a beginner. There is always a bunch of students who turn up to cheer participants at the unearthly hours like 3 am. And one is never ever surprised to know that he is greatly cheered and encouraged, even by the event commentator who treats him on par with the others, announcing things dramatically, publicising his tremendous effort, and that of others who are racing to the finish.

Like my daughter, who won overall with a distance of 32 kilometres in 12 hours. But she looks up in awe at R's performance and achievement. And the great family and coaching effort that has brought him to this level.

I just found out that March 21st is celebrated as World Down Syndrome Day, and the particular date has something to do with something called the "triplication of the 21st chromosome" in a human cell that gives rise to this physiological condition.

It is absolutely in the fitness of things that the dawn of today, 21st March teaches us something new about folks like R, and how folks like him tackle life.

Down's syndrome was named after John Langdon Down, the British physician who described the syndrome in 1866. The disorder was identified as a chromosome 21 thing by Jérôme Lejeune in 1959.

I just think the Syndrome is unfortunately named.

There is nothing Down about it.

One simply looks UP at R in awe....

Click below to watch. R swimming in the lane with the lady in a green saree noting the laps at the deep end....


  1. That's such an inspiring post! How wonderful! And certainly in his case I think Downs Syndrome is misnamed! Thanks for sharing the video as well! Have a lovely evening and a great week!


  2. Beautiful post. One of my friend's second child has Down syndrome and she's studying still in a regular school...I agree with you on that, integration is better where possible. That's quite a significant coincidence that the Swimmathon was held in Down Syndrome Day...somehow coincidences always have a deeper meaning than we realise...see how you did this post and educated all of us :)

  3. Wow, it's very moving to watch R swim. Congratulations to him.

  4. Well done R.
    R and his parents deserve all the praise.
    Even I had noticed a boy with special needs in the same pool where my boys went for swimmimg .
    While my younger son used to avoid the coach's coaxing him to try once more , this boy would grin and come forward .He was steadfast in his attempt to learn even if it meant pain. he was more determined than others.
    When things are normal, we are too inward looking , very conscious of our feelings and discomforts and that stops us ,most often, from
    trying hard.
    Its a very inspiring post ,even for parents like me.

  5. Yes, an inspiring post. The rest of us have much to learn from R and his supportive parents.

  6. Your daughter and the boy are both winners. In fact, so are all the others who completed the swimmathon. When I read posts like this, i wish blogs were more permanent like books, that you could cut, keep and cherish.

  7. Very inspiring post.. there are always people around who inspire you.. we need people like you to tell us about them..

  8. I am amazed at the energy it must take to complete a difficult swimmathon like this. All of the participants are to be congratulated, but the special needs boy gets the most kudos.

    His parents are wise to encourage him to do everything he can to survive in the real world. They won't always be there to help him and he has to learn to stand on his own.

    Thank you for a great post.

  9. One year I helped with the Special Olympics and saw more courage that day than any other. First of all they organization had put the kids in a stadium with obligatory stadium seating. The children had to overcome a terror of falling to be able to get down the steps and then negotiating another set of steps to get to the track to run. It was a good day and everyone tried their best and had strong hopes of winning like any other athlete. Only one or two were not able to overcome their fear of heights. Also, it was hot as it could be out there. It would have been a blessing to have a pool in which to swim and cool off.

    Congratulations to your R with his limitations and personal best, and to your daughter for her of their personal accomplishment.

    The name Down's syndrome is just a name for the condition. It is named after the doctor who figured out what happened. In my lifetime it has been called Mongolism and that is an offensive description to me. I prefer Down's or Trisomy 23.

  10. Very touching. Congratulations to R and his family too.


  11. Fantastic and simply inspiring to the hilt. Downs syndrome or otherwise to swim for 12 hours is just a mindblowing effort !

    People like R makes make me wonder about the 'little' complaints about life that i keep having ! Many congratulations to his parents as well !

    Oh yes, many congratulations to your daughter as well. She has done the 12 KMs as well. Its not joke. Running for 2 odd hours sucked every droplet of energy in me for two months ! :)

    These are awesome feats ! Such feats demonstrate the fact that we are always capable of achieving far more than the big limitations seem to make us believe !

    Many many congratulations to all involved !

  12. Very inspiring post on Down's syndrome !! Actually, all the syndromes need not be looked down !!! My hearty congratulations to that boy R !!!! :)

    Its a fantastic thing that is being held in your community swimming pool and I appreciate the efforts of all those involved in such arrangements. My daughters would've loved to do something like that !!! :)

    And congrats to your daughter - Fantastic 32km in 12 hrs !!! Keep it up !!!

  13. Very inspiring. Credit does goes to his supporting family too. And congrats to the daughter.

  14. wonderful post. we had a Down's Syndrome child in the family. Daughter of a distant cousin.unfortunately she did not live beyond 6 years of age. Had she survived she might have been encouraged by her mother just like R

  15. please congratulate your daughter on her achievement.

  16. That's an inspiring story! I knew of a mother who had a little boy who had Down's syndrome and she used to say, he keeps her young with his positive attitude.

    I felt the credit for his positive attitude went to her.

  17. Sylvia Thank you .

    Starry Thank you. and thanks to google, I found out about the Special Day !

    Helene H Thank you and will convey your congratulations to R...

    kirti Thank you. You know, in the big rush to get the best of everything, we often forget that our kids need to be sensitized to those who are not similarly abled as them. I've seen adults who often make stupid remarks at such times, thinking that they are making a smart one. Some folks just never learn...

    manju Thank you. One feels very humbled when one sees performances like R's. And we crib about so much....

    SucharitaYes, thats what the coach told everyone. That each of them was a winner for competing with himself....

    aativas Thank you.

    Darlene Yes, R needs to be greatly applauded. Wonderful child, wonderful parents !

    Amber Star How wonderful that you helped with the Special Olympics ! That must have been one great heartwarming experience. And thank you for the congratulations...

    VivekThank you

    KaviComing from a marathon person, the compliments to the swimmers are greatly treasured. Both R and my daughter have been doing this every year. My daughter broke two records this year, and would you believe it, R was upset because he did i more kilomtre last year in Swimmathon 2009. Good attitude I thought. :-) Looking forward to the next. (I know how tough it is. I participated once about 6-7 years ago.. Did 3 kilometres in 3 hours. Then came home because we expected some guests. While my daughter cintued to complete 23 kms in 12 hours then)

    ums Thank you. Your congratulations conveyed o R and my daughter.

    RadhaThank you.

    HHG Thank you.

    IHM What you say is so true. R's mother is a story by herself. Having faced uncoopertaive schools, having to change houses often, and then being diagnosed and treated for the big C all when R was growing up. And she still remains an optimistic smiling lady ....