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How one fall turned gymnast Sandeep Kumar Pal's life upside down

Sandeep Pal won a silver at the Khelo India games earlier this year. Sandeep Pal

The picture on Sandeep Pal Kumar's Whatsapp profile is that of a young man approaching the peak of his career, in supreme control of his body. The image is one from the Khelo India U-20 games held in January this year. Sandeep is airborne, biceps rippling, eyes scrunched in concentration, about to nail a catch on the gymnastics high bar. He will go on to win a silver medal from the games -- adding to the gold he won in the same competition in 2018. He'll then earn a place in the national camp and move a step closer to his dream of one day competing at the Olympics.

There's nothing more he wants but that. "Meri life hai gymnastics sir! (My life is gymnastics, sir)," he'll say over the phone. Superimposed on that image of triumph though is a quote that advocates perseverance. It reads -- Patience is not the ability to wait but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.

A good attitude is all Sandeep has right now. He's not in the national camp right. He isn't flashing through the air, defying gravity by dint of his muscles. He is at his modest home in Allahabad, confined to a wheelchair. "C4-5 fracture-dislocation with quadriplegia," is how the doctors first described his injury. His phone is operated by his brother who puts him on speakerphone when he has to speak to someone. Despite his ordeal, he's managed, it seems, to keep in good spirits. Dial his number and he answers brightly over the phone. "I'm doing well sir, how are you?"

Sandeep recalls just how it all went wrong. A month after he had won his medal at the Khelo India games, he had joined the national camp in New Delhi's Indira Gandhi Stadium. His immediate goals were to perform at the upcoming University Games and Nationals. And so, on February 5, he practised his floor routine. It's not his favourite, he prefers to be up on the high bar or the rings. He's specifically training a double back salto.

By his standards, the routine - in which he performs a backward facing somersault with two rotations -- wasn't a particularly difficult one. "I must have done it over a thousand times in my life. Even on the day I got injured, I performed it three times cleanly," he recalls. The fourth time though, he lost control. "My mind went blank at the top of the jump. I had just returned from home, so perhaps I wasn't completely fit or something distracted me, but I messed up and landed on my neck," he says.

His memory of the hours that followed is hazy. "It's normal to fall in training, so initially I thought I'd just get up. But obviously I couldn't. I was completely paralysed. I then remember being taken to the hospital," he says. He underwent surgery the following morning at the Indian Spinal Injuries institute. Following surgery, he was prescribed aggressive physiotherapy, but progress was slow. "Even after surgery, I was in so much pain. It was three months before the pain became tolerable," he says.

More than the pain, he admits sinking into a deep depression. "One moment, you are flying through the air and the next minute, you can't move," he says. It took psychological treatment to improve his condition. "They said, 'I've already had the worst day of my life. The rest of my life is still in front of me. And it's up to me to do what I can to make the most of it.' I thought that made sense," he says.

After three months of treatment at the Institute, Sandeep returned to his hometown. He's currently undergoing physiotherapy with Dr. Mohit Srivastava, who was part of the medical team at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Dr Srivastava is hopeful of Sandeep's prospects, particularly because of his background and mentality. "In most patients, I wouldn't be as optimistic. But because he is a sportsperson and especially in Sandeep's case, things are different. They view their condition almost as an athletic challenge. They always push themselves far more than what others would," he says.

This is exactly what Sandeep does as well. "I'll try and set targets for myself everyday. I'll try and increase the number of repetitions of any exercise I do. If I'm in a wheelchair, I'll have a weight tied to my arm and try to move it," he says.

According to his physiotherapist, there is a marked improvement in his condition since his return home. "When he first arrived, he only had some movement in his right shoulder. Now he has regained some feeling in his left shoulder as well. He's able to sit without support. He's beginning to regain deep sensation in his lower limbs as well. I think by the end of the year, with the right protocol, we might see a good improvement in him," says Srivastava.

Srivastava won't specify exactly what he means by 'a good improvement'. "The nature of his injury is such that there are no guarantees of how much improvement could happen and in how much time," he says. But he does know from prior experience that a lot is possible. He gives the example of another Indian international gymnast, Mayank Srivastava, who suffered the same injury as Sandeep while training as a standby for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. "He too was completely paralysed after his injury. He's now able to stand without support," says Srivastava.

He's also motivating Sandeep with the example of hockey player Sandeep Singh, who was shot in the back and was confined to a wheelchair with a bullet in his spine. Singh eventually made a complete recovery and returned to the Indian hockey team and played an Olympics too. Sandeep hopes to do that as well. Gymnastics, as he says, is all he's lived for, from the time he was a 10 year old, who peeped into a gymnastics class during a summer vacation. "It's still my dream that I'll be able to return to gymnastics once again," he says.

Sandeep remains upbeat about his condition, but this doesn't take away the enormous challenge he has to overcome. His biggest priority is the financial burden his treatment is placing on his family. The cost of his treatment he reckons comes to about Rs. 60,000 per month. While medication and physiotherapy cost Rs. 20,000 each, the rest goes in hiring a full-time attendant since he still isn't in control of his bowel movements. While the Sports Authority of India had taken care of his hospital expenses, Sandeep has not had any contact with the government body since he returned home.

In the meantime his father, a soldier in the Indian Army, pays for all his expenses. Ironically, Sandeep was about to join the army himself and received his papers just a couple of days after his surgery. "I was a member of the Army Boys Sports Company and because of my performance, I was about to join the army. Three days after my injury, I received my papers for joining as a havildar in the army. Of course, I can't join right now. I've been told that once I recover from my injury, they will start the process once again," he says.

Now with his options running out, Sandeep is hopeful the government will support him once again. "SAI were very supportive when I was in the hospital. I'm hopeful that they will continue to support me now," he says.

He does all he can to stay upbeat. He watches old competition videos of his as well as those of competitors. When he gets bored, he'll listen to the Haryanvi chartbusters that would play on loop at the national camp. The tunes and frequent calls from his erstwhile colleagues are his only connection to that world, one he misses terribly.

"The thing I miss the most was the perfect schedule we would keep. We'd get up at 4:30 in the morning, train till 7:30, then have breakfast. After that I'd hang out with my friends, we'd again prepare for evening training and by about 8:30 we'd be done. I miss being able to get on the apparatus and train. I miss the freedom I felt in the hall," he says.

The odds that he might return to that aren't great, but Sandeep isn't giving up just yet. "My goal is to recover and return to gymnastics. But even if I can't, I'll train for the Paralympics. One way or the other I'm going to return to sports," he says.