Alphonsa is not one to rue over handicaps. She has overcome the painful memory of dragging her listless legs behind her on the cemented corridors of her lower primary school. The 36-year-old woman has groomed herself to be a star in India's wheelchair basketball team.
Alphonsa, the third child of Mary and Thomas from Kalloorkkad in Ernakulam district, was diagnosed with polio at the age of one. Her father was a daily-wage labourer and the family led a hand-to-mouth existence.
“I used to crawl to school. When I dragged my legs over the cemented steps of the buildings, I could hear my classmates taunting me. 'Here comes the lame one,' they would say. My legs were all bruised from the daily struggle. My mother used to kiss on those bruises and her tears would wash over them.
“I was disheartened by the insults. I stayed away from school for some days. Then I decided I would not back down,” Alphonsa said.
“I wanted to participate in the shot put competition when I was in the fourth standard. My teachers did not want to disappoint me. So they let me give it a try as the last participant. Someone asked how can this lame girl throw shot put. I did not have any second thoughts. I gave everything. I came first!
“When I went to high school, a firm at Kunnamkott gifted me an artificial limb. I took part in shot put competition again. There were many people to discourage me. But they were proved wrong. I won in every contest I participated,” she said.
Alphonsa could not continue with her studies after tenth standard. She started working as a seamstress attached to various churches, living in Vimala Bhavan at Anikkad and Karuna Bhavan at Kaladi.
“I was shattered when my mother died of cancer in 2008. That is when I met T Ajeesh Kumar from Mullaringad in Idukki district. We were seeing each other for four years. We got married in June 2012. If you have someone to walk along with you, you will not feel any shortcomings. My condition worsened but we kept smiling,” she said.
Alphonsa had a chance encounter with basketball, the other love of her life. “Sister Lucy of Vimala Bhavan told me about basketball on wheelchairs. My husband accompanied me to a camp at Kothamangalam,” she said.
She kept her interest alive in other sports items too. She came first in javelin throw, shot put and discus throw in the Paralympics in Kozhikode in 2015
Wheelchair basketball started out well. Her team won the second place in the group event held in Chennai and came third in another match held in Delhi. The team finished the national meet as runners-up. She got an opportunity to train in Thailand. Eventually, she was selected to the national team. Alphonsa was one of the three women from Kerala in the national team, along with Nisha from Palakkad and Sini from Koothattukulam.
The elusive sports wheelchair
Alphonsa wants to perfect her game yet she can't even afford to buy a sports wheelchair. “I just can't buy a sports wheelchair for Rs 30,000. My husband is a daily-wage labourer. We do not even own a house. I have been living on a wheelchair gifted by a few charity workers at Padikodikkulam. I practice on that wheelchair when I am home. I ride with my husband to the camp at Kalamassery once every week.
“Whenever I get an offer to play international matches, I am supposed to buy a list of accessories, including a pair of good shoes, jersey and winter jacket. There is no point in regretting what you can't afford to. You have to be contended with what you have. Right now I am in Tamil Nadu for the national wheelchair basketball championship,” she said.
Alphonsa has a word of advice to differently abled people like her.
“People like telling differently abled people that they won't reach anywhere. Never let them discourage you. You have to be aware of your limitations and realise how fortunate we are. My strength comes from my partner. My path is lit up when I hold his hand.,” Alphonsa said.