Asked about the motorcycle accident that took his right leg, the country’s first para-cyclist medallist told TOI: “August 18, 2007—a budding Hyderabadi entrepreneur, I had returned from Hong Kong and taken out my Enfield Bullet for a ride when a bus dragged me 200 metres. On second impact, I tried to get my body between its wheels but couldn’t get one leg out of the way.”
If the accident wasn’t enough, the Bluetooth-distracted doctor botched up.
Mehta said: “He put a cotton ball on my wound and strapped it, forgetting to put a Soframycin patch on the knee-to-ankle injury.”
After two days, the cotton jammed and his toes stopped moving. There was no option but to cut the leg.
The fall and rise of Mehta
After the amputation, Mehta tried swimming and joined a Pune academy. One day, taking a stroll in a park with his cousin, he asked for his bicycle to ride. Mehta said: “My cousin was hesitant. ‘You’ll fall,’ he said. I said: ‘It’s okay. I do that a lot while walking, too. In a 1 km round, I fell five times. Every fall made me stronger from within.”
It took him six years to enter his first race. He went on to become the country’s most accomplished para-cyclist with two Para-Asian Championship silver medals.
He rode from London to Paris, climbed 9,000 feet, and twice got his name in the Limca book of Records. In 2013, he went on a solo trip from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Mehta says 2013 was also the start of his foundation. During the Asian Para-cycling Championship in New Delhi, his teammates were languishing at fifth or sixth without support for buying customised prosthetics and wheelchairs.
Mehta said: “My family helped two of them afford the equipment, and within days, 300 people approached me. I couldn’t ask dad for more money, so I decided to raise it.”
The foundation has since helped more than 100 para-athletes and 1,000 soldiers from the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). One of them is Harinder Singh.
Feat of BSF amputees
On November 30, 2012, Harjinder returned home to Amritsar’s Ajnala town after losing his right leg above the knee to an IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Kashmir. Today, he joins former BSF amputees’ 3,801-km ride cycling expedition from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
Former unit mate and fellow villager Gurlal Singh, who lost his left leg in that blast, has won the para-cycling C4 event gold medal at the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, and a bronze at the eighth Asian Road Para-Cycling Championship last year in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Athongo Lotha, 40, of Dimapur, Nagaland, received bullet injuries from a 2006 Kashmir operation in which he shot down two militants and won a gallantry medal. This year, he rejoins the Infinity Ride cycling expedition across 35 cities in 41 days. It started from Srinagar’s Dal Lake on November 19 and will end at Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, on New Year.
Search for a dream team
Mehta said: “We aim to raise awareness and reach out to the other differently-abled talents across the country,”
When asked what keeps him going, he replied: “The love for challenges.” Nearly 1,500 medals are up for grabs in the Paralympics. Mehta’s mission is to build a dream team for the contest.
He added: “India won four medals in the 2016 Rio Paralympics but, by 2024 we want to equal the Chinese and the European medal tallies.”