THE WORLD CHAMPION WE OVERLOOK

Manikandan Kumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When this blog met him, Manikandan Kumar’s triumph at the 2012 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships was over seven years in the past. He hasn’t been idle. There have been other podium finishes including three more at the world championships. What have been less than ideal are our system of encouragement and the resource-rich we call: sponsors.

There was palpable imperviousness to the negative and the pessimistic, in how Manikandan Kumar spoke. “ I believe in myself. I grew gradually in climbing. It wasn’t easy. You can ask anyone – I never complain,’’ he said. It was now years since Mani, as he is popularly called, burst on to the scene. For this writer, that moment happened one night at an outdoor school in Ranikhet, when Kuttappa (Kuttss) Bommanda showed up for dinner apologizing for his late arrival. “ I was watching Mani’s climb at the Paraclimbing World Championships on my laptop. He has won it!’’ Kuttss, an outdoor instructor from Bengaluru, said enthusiastically. The year was 2012. Mani had become India’s first world champion in paraclimbing; the country is otherwise a relative unknown in the top echelons of competition climbing. Aside from fellow climbers and officials linked to that circuit in sports, practically none in India knew him.

Seven years since, the environment for Mani and his ilk in climbing wasn’t much different. Sport climbing was slated to debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo by mid-2020. But the discipline wasn’t yet on the list of sports for the Paralympics that would follow. That meant, Mani, a former world champion and still among the best in his category worldwide, wouldn’t get a shot at the Paralympics. Why blame the Olympic movement? Seven years since Mani’s triumph at the Paraclimbing World Championships, India was yet to have a distinct paraclimbing program. “ I would like to change that,’’ Mani said, sipping coffee. It was November 2019. We were at a café on MG Road in Bengaluru.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Born 1986, Mani is the eldest of three brothers; their father worked as a carpenter, mother remained a home maker. He grew up in Malleshwaram, a suburb of Bengaluru. When he was around five years of age, Mani had an attack of typhoid. “ That was when my parents realized that my right leg had been affected,’’ Mani said. He began limping. General literature on the disease, available on the Internet, speaks of typhoid as fever caused by bacterial infection. However, you also find mention of rare neurological complications that impact a patient’s limbs and movement. In Mani’s case, the affected leg stayed weak in terms of musculature and strength. The boy loved sports, particularly football. Limp notwithstanding, he plunged in and played. “ I faced no discrimination. I played without thinking of my disability,’’ he said. Those years, climbing wasn’t at all in the frame.

In 2002, aged 16, Mani found himself at an outdoor camp in Ramnagaram organized by The Association of People with Disability (APD). Located roughly fifty kilometers away from Bengaluru, Ramnagaram has historically been a climbing hotspot. The camp participants were introduced to bouldering and rappelling. “ We climbed two to three boulders. I liked the experience. One of the instructors suggested that I try out climbing at the office of GETHNAA, which had a climbing wall right behind their building,’’ Mani said. GETHNAA stood for General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure. At this point, the climbing wall adjacent to the city’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium was still a couple of years away; GETHNAA’s was the only wall around. Mani’s opening stint at the GETHNAA wall was encouraging. “ I climbed three routes. I felt I should take up the sport,’’ he said. He started attending the climbing sessions there regularly. Among the instructors he met there was Keerthi Pais, who would become India’s best known trainer in the discipline. Not long after this foray into climbing, Mani also participated in a state level competition, in the regular category; there was no separate category for the physically challenged. “ I remember doing a dyno at that competition. I did it using my better leg. Everyone was appreciative,’’ Mani said laughing. The right leg was still quite weak. He was at the threshold of an engaging format of progression with that limb, for climbing by nature is a sport demanding three-point contact with the rock or wall being ascended.

Photo: courtesy Mani

In the sharp divide between staying perched or falling, there is little room to spare a limb to haul up a weak one. Yet in the initial days, that, was exactly what Mani often had to do – he had to lift his right leg with his hand and place it on the next foothold. None of this stopped him from making the first major decision of his life. Mani completed his tenth standard and gave up studying. “ I had no interest in studies. I wanted to make a career out of climbing,’’ he said. He did not have the benefit of money and wealthy parents. His family was struggling financially. He had no sponsors or well-wishers. All he had was self-belief.

In 2002, Mani went to Delhi to watch the national climbing competition. It left him wanting to qualify for the next edition of the event. At an open competition held thereafter at Ramjas near Delhi, he was the only climber making it to the final in his age group. “ I got an appreciation letter for that,’’ he recalled. Now the desire to excel was picking up. That year was noteworthy for something else too. Mani was among those featured in a documentary film on climbing. “ Facing the camera, I blurted out that one day I want to be a world champion. It’s still there in that video,’’ he said. In 2003, he participated in the zonal competition and ended up seventh or eighth, narrowly missing selection for the national competition.  However, he got a wild card entry, the condition being he would have to do a trial climb and prove his worth before the senior official overseeing sport climbing. That done and initial rounds too cleared, Mani found himself among four climbers from the South Zone who featured in the final. He finished last but won the best climber award.

In 2004, he was back in the final. In 2006 also, he qualified for the national competition (in India, the national competition is at the apex of a series of zonal competitions arranged below it in the hierarchy). That year, he started working as a coach under Keerthi Pais, reporting every day to the new climbing wall that had come up near Kanteerava Stadium. In 2007, Mani didn’t qualify for the final at the national competition; it was the case in 2008 too. But the coaching continued, including accompanying his wards (they were in the junior category) who had made it to the national competition, to their respective events. The coaching assignment brought with it a small salary. Additionally Mani worked at outdoor adventure camps. The income he thus made was useful for his family.

Mani with Philippe Ribiere at one of the editions of Girivihar’s open sport climbing competition at Belapur in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

For over a decade in Mumbai, the city’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, ran an open climbing competition. It would eventually lead to two editions of the IFSC World Cup in Bouldering (IFSC – International Federation of Sport Climbing) being held in Navi Mumbai in 2016 and 2017. Mani had been to these events. Among foreign climbers visiting the open competition held in Belapur was Philippe Ribiere from France. “ He is someone I respect,’’ Mani said. At age four Philippe was diagnosed with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome and has excelled at climbing despite that. He started climbing at six. To others climbing so having overcome physical challenges, he is important not merely as example to follow but also as among those inspiring the first international paraclimbing competition held in 2006 at Ekaterinburg, Russia. More such competitions were held in the years that followed. Then in 2011, the first paraclimbing world championships were held in Arco Italy, under the auspices of IFSC. Mani had been following these developments. He had faith in himself and there was also that old statement to camera: one day I want to be a world champion, which had come out naturally, to explore.

“ Between 2009 and 2011 – that is when I realized, this is my chance. I watched all relevant videos of paraclimbing. I used to take note of participants at these competitions. After the 2011 paraclimbing world championships in Arco, I decided that no matter what, I am going,’’ Mani said. He didn’t tell anyone of his resolve. He commenced preparations in January 2012. Sometime in July-August 2012, he had a conversation with the zonal chairman overseeing sport climbing in South India. He agreed to forward Mani’s candidature. The venue for the 2012 paraclimbing world championships was Paris. Registration done, Mani’s next challenge was finding sponsors to cover the expenses of his trip. Karnataka State Housing Corporation covered the cost of his flight tickets. For the rest, friends, students, the parents of his students – they chipped in. “ Somehow I managed,’’ Mani said. It was his first time overseas; Mani traveled alone. “ The process of flying out made me resolved – it is now or never. There is no way I will complain,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Given the variety of physical disabilities and the way they impact human performance to different extents, paraclimbing has several cub-categories for participants. The categories are awarded on the basis of medical documents and examination. In 2019, there were as many as eight sub-categories in the men’s section at the world championships. In 2012, only the second year of the paraclimbing world championships, there were four sub-categories – Amputee Leg PD, Arthritis + Neurological PD1, Visual Impairment B1 and Visual Impairment B2. Mani was in the second segment – Arthritis + Neurological PD1. Mani reached Paris two days earlier. He stayed alone in a dormitory and on competition day, took a train to the venue. The competition featured lead climbing. Mani cleared the qualifying round (he estimated the climbing grade therein at around 7b) and made it to the final. Philippe Ribiere was among the competitors; he didn’t reach the final that year, Mani said. The final featured six climbers: two from France and one each from Italy, Brazil, Hungary and India. Each climber had one shot at the route on the lead climbing wall.

“ I almost made it to the top. I fell short by four holds. After the climb, I knew I was in the top three but didn’t know I had won. It was the Brazilian coach who told me that. I dropped whatever I had and ran to the notice board to check. It was true. I was over the moon. I had achieved my dream,’’ Mani said. He spent another two days in Paris; he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower. Then he returned to Bengaluru. Family; friends, the media – they all turned up at the airport to receive him. “ It was the biggest thing that happened for India in competition climbing,’’ Mani recalled. A country hardly mentioned in sport climbing suddenly had a world champion in paraclimbing. Mani has since had podium finish thrice at the world championships – second place in 2014, third place in 2018 and third place again in 2019. He is typically lone participant from India. “ India and Hungary – we don’t have teams. Other nations send large teams supported by sponsors and funds to the paraclimbing world championships. France is really big in paraclimbing,’’ Mani said. In August 2019, he was among recipients (in the land  category, for the preceding year: 2018) of India’s annual Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.

Photo: courtesy Mani

One of the legacies of Philippe Ribiere’s push to hold a paraclimbing competition and the IFSC world championships that followed has been the emergence of more competitions – you could call it a circuit – where paraclimbers can participate. Mani has been active here and there are several podium finishes earned so. But it has indisputably been a pattern of ups and down; he won some, lost some and sometimes a setback or series of setbacks made him feel very bad. On the other hand, as Mani put it – even his idol, tennis great Roger Federer has had to deal with inconsistency in performance. “ If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. I just need to calm myself down,’’ Mani said. He does bouldering and lead climbing but his strength is in lead. The categories and rules of the sport have also got revised going ahead. At the world championships of 2018 and 2019, his category for participation was RP2. He continues to limp when walking but sustained climbing and pushing one’s limits has meant he no longer needs to free his hand and haul up that right leg. It is responding better. That said; his body strength is distributed differently from that of the average climber.

Mani has good upper body strength. One of the exercises used to train climbers features the campus board. It is usually installed at a slight overhanging angle and requires climber to ascend using handholds (typically horizontal wooden sections fitted on the board) with no footholds to support body weight. Climbers train to move sequentially, using one hand and the next; they also train to move explosively wherein they launch off using both hands and go for the next hold. “ My ability to campus is stronger than that of many normal climbers,’’ Mani said explaining how he compensates for the weak right leg. But his own success aside, he worries for paraclimbing in India because although there are physically challenged people who speak to him of foraying in that direction, few of them turn up later to climb. If they don’t turn up to climb and train, how can there be Indian paraclimbers? For now therefore, it is just Mani on the global map. He has been to five world championships so far (winning medals on four occasions). He would like to make that ten. He is also the first Indian climber to win gold medals in the US when he topped his category – neurological / physical impairment – at the 2017 and 2018 Adaptive National Championships conducted by USA Climbing. “ My ultimate goal is a medal at the Olympics. I am hoping that paraclimbing gets included in the Paralympics. I would like to keep competing till the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. One way or the other, people always encouraged me. That was motivating. Further, if anyone says I can’t do it, that is bigger motivation for me,’’ Mani said. Aspiration is one thing; as is personal commitment. What about the means?

Photo: courtesy Mani

So far – notwithstanding four podium finishes at the world championships and several medals on the paraclimbing circuit – Mani has no steady sponsor. For his trips overseas, he now taps crowd funding. “ Funding has improved with each year. But it worries me that despite so many medals won, I still have to struggle to get backing,’’ he said. It felt strange hearing that for Bengaluru is home to wealthy IT companies (with CSR accounts to their credit) and IT professionals have been big in the pursuit of adventure sports like climbing. Adding to Mani’s frustration was that able bodied climbers of less achievement in competition climbing found sponsors in India. The anger was clear in his tone. He was willing to explore more zones of discomfort as regards his climbing but that question puzzled: why aren’t sponsors interested in him, a paraclimber? “ Why should I seek their sympathy? Will you sponsor me only if I seek your sympathy? I am not complaining. Why don’t you appreciate my hard work instead?’’ Mani asked on the subject. It was the only time in our conversation his wall of optimism showed cracks. Meanwhile his coaching continues and he lays much hope on two of his wards; the prayer is that at least one of them secures a podium finish at a world cup in the future. “ I want some able bodied climber to win a medal at a world cup or the world championships. It is a big task for Indian climbers. But with the right approach, it is possible,’’ Mani said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the years of participation at national and zonal climbing competitions and podium positions earned therein, are as stated by the interviewee.)