Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nepali Disabled Sports

As of last Saturday, I have been hired as personal coach for the Nepalese entrant in the 100-meter freestyle and 100-meter breast stroke at the Rio Paralympics. I got this prestigious job while swimming with one of Nepal’s Paralympians last Saturday at a pool high above Kathmandu. While this sounds quite prestigious there is no money, no trip to Rio and, in fact, I actually have to pay to enter the pool. The swimmer in question has also never really worked out and isn’t quite sure how either stroke works. She saw me chugging out my weekly 1650 and asked for help.

Champions will train in this pool!

Although there are exceptions, this is how Nepalese disability sport works. The roads are so torn up and congested in this country that there really is no place for a hand cyclist or a chair rider to train. It’s quite similar to how my dad explained how the track team at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee worked in the 50s: “For practice we ran around the block. Then on Friday there were track meets.”

There also is very little quality gear to use. A few weeks back I was in a 5K race, but nobody had anything resembling a racing chair. The winner just pumped their super-heavy iron daily rides through the course, hit the tape, then piled into cabs or vans and went home. In rich countries everyone shows up in their daily ride, then transfers into a slick racing chair or an 18-speed hand cycle. When I train for a race, I will put on thousands of miles on perfect roads or trails and be in tip top condition for the start. In Nepal you go with what momma gave you.

(Full wrap up of the 5K Race)

One of my co-workers, Rishi Ram Dhakal is the current president of the Nepal Spinal Cord Injury Sports Association (NSCISA). As in all things political in Nepal there is a split in the disability sports community. The NSCISA offers competitions to spinal cord injured athletes in swimming, track & field, basketball, table tennis, cricket and chess. They’ve even dabbled in water polo. They started offering national championships in 2010 and fielded Nepal’s first wheelchair basketball and cricket teams the same year.  On the other hand, the Nepal Paralympic Committee runs swimming, track and power lifting competitions for all disabled athletes  – and has tickets to Rio.




There are also other sports organizations than run competitions, like the 5K race which was run by the Nepal Healthcare Equipment Development Commission. If you are looking to this post to sort it out, you might as well stop right here, because I have no idea how any of it works.

But I’ve been able to attend one track and field event, a few basketball practices, two swimming workouts and the opening of the National Table Tennis center. I’ve also participated in some schoolyard cricket and volleyball.

Women are an integral part of Nepali disabled sports
From what I can tell the basketball team and the table tennis federation have the best facilities and equipment. They are the best trained and most successful athletes. The basketball teams are sponsored by the Danish Disabled Sports Association and there are ten brand new basketball chairs so players don’t have to destroy their daily chairs. They took 2nd in the subcontinent games in 2013. 

There are outdoor ping pong tables all over Nepal so it’s a very popular sport. There is no difference in equipment or rules from able body ping pong so it makes sense that it’s thriving. As a weird Nepal coincidence (they happen all the time here) the former national table tennis champion owns a sports and music shop in my town, Suryabinayak. He sold me my two guitars the first week I was in town and I hadn’t seen him since. When I was playing piano at the Table Tennis Center opening (many miles from Suryabinayak) he came up to the stage and enthusiastically greeted me. I meet tons of people here so I just waved and kept playing. It wasn’t until I sat down for the presentation that my friend re-introduced us. I nearly shat my pants when I figured it out.

Me, Deepak K.C., the architect of the new table tennis center, and Ram, the former national champ and the guy who sold me my guitars!

Wrap up of opening of the National Disabled Table Tennis Center

But, when I say best-trained, it’s not like any of these athletes are well-trained at all. A US Olympian will usually spend 40-50 hours a week doing something with their sport. These athletes are lucky if they can spend 5-10 hours training.

But what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up in team spirit and inclusion. If there is a sporting event, you can bank on at least 100 persons with disability showing up to participate or watch. Aside from protest marches they appear to be the major social functions of the disability community. And it’s really great to see women participating in all sports and being championed by the media just as much as their male counterparts. It’s also a place where caste and disability level are uniformly ignored.

Not only are Nepali disabled athletes participants, they are also crazy cricket fans!

So you won’t be seeing any Nepalese athletes taking home any medals in Rio, but look out for a strong showing from that Table Tennis team in 2020!


20 comments:

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