Ekta Bhyan is a superwoman.
She competes in not one, but two sporting events -- club throw and discus throw. She juggles her time between not one but two professions -- as a civil servant for her state, and a sportswoman. She lives in the Hisar district of Haryana, but trains in Sonipat, three-and-a-half hours away by road on a good day.
She started out four years ago knowing close to nothing about sport, but today is the second Indian woman to have won gold at the Para Asian Games. In her own words, "I started 2018 with two gold medals in the Nationals, won a gold in club throw and bronze in discus throw at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Tunisia. After those, I was sure I would win a medal at the Asian Games. Bas colour kaunsa hoga ye nahi pata tha (I just didn't know what the colour of the medal would be)."
Ekta is ESPN India's differently-abled athlete awardee for 2018, and this is her story.
A little over five years ago, Ekta had just cracked the state civil services exam at the age of 28. She was thrilled. A meritorious student since childhood, all she had wanted for herself were studies; and this was a testament to that. Beaming with joy, she gave interviews to newspapers and started working as an employment officer with the Haryana government. It felt like her life was finally taking a definite shape.
Until that one phone call in 2015.
On the other side of the call was Paralympian and Asian Para Games medalist -- Ekta's future coach, and an ESPN India Awards nominee across both editions -- Amit Kumar Saroha. "He had come across one of my interviews and called me that day to ask if I'll be interested in taking up para sports," says Ekta.
She was taken aback at first -- sport had never crossed Ekta's mind until then. "Sports ke baare me toh kabhi nahi socha tha (I had never thought about sports). I was always more into academics. That's the only thing I focused on all my life."
But the call changed something in Ekta. Not only did her parents encourage her to go for it, she too felt like taking a leap of faith. "It came at a time when I wanted to explore my options. Padhai bahut ho gayi thi (I had studied enough), and he [Saroha] seemed very confident about me."
And did she ever ask him why? "Because just like him, I, too, am quadriplegic," she says. Quadriplegia is a form of paralysis that results in partial or total loss of all four limbs and torso. "He strongly feels the need to encourage the ones who are affected by this disability and get them introduced to sport."
From thereon, began the journey which is hitting highs even Ekta hadn't seen coming.
Ekta was just 18 when she when was involved in an accident in New Delhi. "I always wanted to be a doctor," she smiles. "But the accident left me paralysed. I had a spinal cord injury at the cervical level and had to give up that dream."
She spent the next nine months recovering in hospital, re-learning everything from scratch -- this time, in a wheelchair. "It was a very difficult time for me. It actually took a long time for me to sink in the fact that my legs aren't working anymore, my hands too aren't working. The feeling of uncertainty was too high."
It took a while, but with the support of her family, she started looking at the brighter side and resumed her studies soon after. "I wanted to look at what was left instead of what was lost. And education played a huge role. Once I started studying again, slowly and steadily, normalcy too started coming in," she says.
Years later, when sports happened to her, she was faced with yet another uncertainty. "I had my doubts. I didn't know how I would do eventually, how I would manage everything."
She started training under Saroha at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Sonipat, while her colleagues, family and coach continued to support her, "Whenever I used to get time, I used to go to work. In other days, they were very supportive of my training. My parents too always had the 'let's do it' kind of a spirit, and that helped so much," she says.
All her worries took no time to fade away as she won a gold in club throw and a bronze in discus throw in her first-ever Nationals in Panchkula in 2016. "That was the turning point for me. Once it happened, it was a huge morale booster. Once you know that you have it in you, you know you can try to replicate it again internationally as well."
Ekta, supported by GoSports Foundation since 2017, has now won multiple medals in both events. Currently ranked world no. 6 in club throw and no. 5 in discus throw -- she is the best in Asia in both -- Ekta plans to focus on the former for the next one year. "That's my Paralympic event. That is my main target, both for the upcoming World Championships [in November 2019] as well as Tokyo 2020. Preparations have been good so far and I'm working on my muscle strengthening right now," she says.
Describing the meaning of sport in her life now, there's a stark difference to the uncertainty in her mind when Saroha called her the first time. "Positivity. That's what it has brought to me," she smiles.
Summing it all up, she shares the words that she lives by, and would wish for others to take hope from. "Nothing can stop you. It is just our mental barrier that stops us. No disability, no other circumstance can stop you," she says.
"Don't surrender to your situation. Life comes with its challenges but we are above them all."