Olympics
Jonathan Selvaraj, ESPN 250d

Shubham Shokeen's blades of courage

Like many other teenage boys, Shubham Shokeen is a pro-wrestling fanatic.

"If you leave him alone for some time, he will be watching WWE on TV," says his exasperated mother Krishna. The screensaver on his mobile phone is a photograph of WWE star Bill Goldberg.

But Shubham is a fan of Indian wrestling, too. Growing up in the Delhi neighbourhood of Najafgarh, it was only understandable that he wanted to meet the locality's biggest grappling name.

So a few weeks ago, after mustering up the courage over a few days, Shubham had his mother take him to the home of double Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar.

"When he met him, Sushil said, 'You came to my home this time. Next time I will come to your house and visit you after you have won your Special Olympics medals,'" Krishna recalls.

Shubham, 14, is now at that moment: Later on Tuesday, he will compete in the figure skating event at the Special Olympics in Graz, Austria.

It is a future Krishna would never have imagined for her son. Shubham was born with a hole in his heart, a condition that was not diagnosed or treated until he was a year-and-a-half. There would be further complications.

"After Shubham recovered from his heart surgery, we noticed that he wasn't playing with toys the way other children would. He wouldn't bang them or react to noise," Krishna says. Indeed, Shubham was diagnosed with hearing, speech and subsequently, learning disabilities.

Life was hard, both for the youngster and his parents. They would hover protectively around him while he would act out at any opportunity he got. "He would act out a lot. When we tried to take him to school, he would create a fuss and once tried to jump out of a car," Krishna says.

It was only a chance encounter with a pair of roller skates that ultimately set Shubham onto the path that culminates on Tuesday with the finals of the figure skating event in Graz. Mother and son were walking to a market when Shubham saw a pair of skates hanging from the wall of a shop.

"He insisted on having that pair. I was very worried because I thought he would get hurt if he played. But he lay down on the ground in the middle of the market and started crying. I had no choice but to get him those skates," Krishna remembers with a smile.

At home, the family's decision to let their son take charge of something in his life, didn't get the best reception.

"His grandmother said he would fall all the time now," Krishna recalls. Shubham, though, stuck to his task. With no coaching, he eventually learned to skate at his home. When he participated and then won gold at a state level special needs competition, his goals grew higher still.

"When we found out about the Special Olympics tournament, he became desperate to take part. He really wanted to travel in an aeroplane." 

However, he wouldn't get a chance to take part in skating as the Indian chapter of the Special Olympics wanted participants to train in ice skating. So, Shubham too switched his roller skates for the bladed kind. In 2016, he qualified for the Games by winning gold at the nationals. Although nervous about participating in his first Winter Games, Shubham is excited about the opportunity.

Not least, because he has a deal with Sushil Kumar. Shubham is confident of making that happen: "Gold leke aana hai (I will bring the gold)."

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