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He remembers lying in the snow, his ears ringing from the sound of the blast. He felt an excruciating pain in his left leg, and when his hearing was back moments later, he could hear his own screams along with the loud chatter from his fellow Armymen who had reached the spot.
“Kuch nahin hua hai, sab theek hai. Kuch tension mat le (Nothing has happened, everything’s fine. Don’t get tense),” Anandan Gunasekaran recalls telling his colleagues. And yet, he couldn’t dare look down at what was left of his limb after stepping on a landmine. He’d never see that foot again.
Last week, the 32-year-old was in China’s Wuhan for the World Military Games, racing away with a blade for a left foot, . And now, he finds himself in contention for the Tokyo Paralympics next year. “The rules have changed and qualification is based on a ranking system,” he says. “The final trial is in May, but I’m sure I’ll be in the top 5 world ranks. I’m sure I’ll qualify.”
Gunasekaran, a Subedar in Madras Sappers, had been posted at the Line of Control (LOC) in January 2008. Five months later, on June 4, he was a part of a team sent to conduct a routine check of the wire fencing at the border. It was there, hidden in the snow, that Gunasekaran stepped on the mine.
A year later, he remembers sitting in a hospital after numerous surgeries, reading a magazine article about multiple gold-medal winning Paralympian Oscar Pistorius — and his mind was set on what he wanted to do.
Eleven years later, Gunasekaran is living his “second life”. “I was using a wooden leg in place of my left foot, which was cut above the ankle,” he says. “I used to fall often when practising with the prosthetic. But this was my new life. I had to get used to it.” He harboured dreams of competing in the Paralympics, and started practising running with the wooden leg. It was cumbersome, as he’d run off-balance and without much fluidity.
“People on the streets who didn’t know me, who didn’t know what I had gone through, used to call me ‘paagal’ (mad) when they saw me at practice,” he says. “And there was not much support from home because I never told my parents anything either initially. They knew there was an accident, but I didn’t tell them I’d lost my leg since I’m their only male child and they would have felt bad.”
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It was only six months after the accident that his parents knew about the amputation. But till date, Gunasekaran is not sure whether the other residents of his hometown — Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu — know. “My parents didn’t tell anyone to avoid the social stigma that can come because someone is an amputee,” he says.
But his secret may not remain hidden for long — and at the moment, he couldn’t care less. “When the accident happened, I felt everything was over. My father is an auto-driver, so things were hard. And then I lost my leg so I thought I may not be able to contribute financially,” he says. “But then, I realised this was another opportunity. The Army continued to support me. By 2014, I got a blade and started training. I wanted to make a name for myself.”
Months later, he travelled for his first international Grand Prix in 2014, in Tunisia, and returned with a gold in the 200m and a silver in 100m. And now, in the run-up to Tokyo, he’s building momentum.
In August, he won the 200m gold at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Paris. Now, with three more titles under his belt, he is training at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. “I don’t know if people know about the accident, or even about me in general,” he says. “Maybe now, they will know. Maybe now, there will be acceptance.”