With few opportunities to practice as a team due to the work and educational commitments of the players, practice games are intensely contested and very important for coaches to gauge skill levels and evolution.

For 7 hours a day for the duration of the selection trials, the women were put through the paces by the two coaches, who were also the selection committee. Here, in one of many strength exercises, they race in fours with one player pulling three others - a tough task when even moving a single wheelchair is hard work.

Hindu Alayamani (centre) leads the shortlisted candidates in stretches, something that all top flight athletes regard with great seriousness.
Hindu Alayamani (centre) leads the shortlisted candidates in stretches, something that all top flight athletes regard with great seriousness.

At 16 and a half, Rekha (she prefers the single name), from Ghaziabad is the youngest player selected in this Indian team and was one of only two players accompanied by their parents. Her father is a master tailor for fashion designers in Delhi. Despite behind disabled from the age of one and having used a wheelchair for the first time just three years earlier, she’s already a rising star and one of the fastest on wheels in the team.

Head coach of both the mens and women's team, Anthony Pereira, has been a parathelete since the early 70s with the armed forces. He was an engineer with the Madras Sappers during the 1971 Indo-Pak war and was injured in battle when struck by shrapnel, during the set up of a temporary tank bridge across a river. Anthony Das Pereira (68) lives in Pune, “although I was confined to a wheelchair I felt the need to do something so I started a new innings as a basketball player. As I’ve gotten older I felt a need to do something for people like me so I started coaching. I don’t take a single pie for this work neither do I ask for anything. So I’m trying to improve the game of these teams.”
Tamil Nadu players share a laugh between sessions. Like most sports teams there is a deep feeling of sisterhood and support tempered by constant leg pulling and ensuing giggles.

Rough, calloused and dirt stained hands come with the trade of wheelchair basketball. Often, with no accessible toilets nearby, the women usually use a couple of buckets of water to wash their hands between sessions.

Scores of young men poured out of a huge boys hostel at a sprawling university in the outskirts of an uncharacteristically cool Chennai. The wings of the hostel overlooked a covered courtyard the size of a football field. At its heart was a full length wooden floored basketball court peppered with women in wheelchairs. They shouted out instructions and admonitions, playing hard, giving no quarter. The selection trials for the Indian national women’s team has been intensely competed here for nine ardous days under the watchful eyes of volunteer Head Coach, Anthony Pereira, a paraplegic veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pak war and Lee Simon Roy, able bodied and at one time a national level basketball player. The top 12 women from this group represented the country for the first time ever at the Asian Para Games qualifiers in Bangkok in March 2018. The top teams from there have a shot at the Tokyo Paralympic games in 2020. 
Wheelchair basketball is a nascent sport in India, with the official Indian federation formed just over three years earlier, although the sport has long been popular among disabled veterans in the armed forces. Only recently has the federation been able to apply to be recognised by the Sports Authority of India, that till recently had only supported individual sports at the paralympics. The challenges for the sport, especially the women’s variant, are many, ranging from the broader issues of wheelchair accessibility for accommodation, transportation and toilets to the more specific ones involving expensive spare parts that can only be imported and sub par sports wheelchairs. President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, Madhavi Latha, is wheelchair bound due to spinal compression. Sport saved her life, when she was given a year to live, almost 8 years earlier. But the biggest impediment to their progress according to her, is “a lack of awareness. There is a lot of ignorance across all levels. Among disabled people, their parents and general public. Even I did not know much about disability before my own health issues. If people come to know about this they might come forward to help. Even if they know they might think that other issues like eradication of poverty, employment, health, education are higher on the agenda than sports. I have been trying to convince them that sport is part of education and health and through this they can get employment opportunities as well. Things that can take years to learn in a classroom environment can be understood in a week using sport.”

This lack of awareness has a deep impact on funding, something that is a constant worry for the federation. According to Latha, around 80% of the players come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. The magnitude of this issue is currently illustrated by their desperate plea for a mere Rs. 4.5 Lakh to be able to buy 15 air tickets to Bangkok. As all the players and their wheelchairs cannot be accommodated on a single flight, this seemingly simple booking is a logistical nightmare. To put things in perspective the recently concluded IPL auction had teams spending a whopping Rs. 321 Cr for a single edition. 

According to the 2016 census, India has almost 2.7 crore people who live with disability. Of this number, around 55 lakh are movement related including almost 21 lakh women. All the players, administrators and coaches gave personal testimony of how this sport had changed their lives, enabling them to live with independence and dignity. This sentiment is best captured by Rekha, who at 16 was the youngest player to be selected for the Indian team, “Lot of people with disabilities are stuck at home thinking they can’t live a normal life but I think that people like me are even better than normal people as we can do many things that they can’t. Nothing is impossible for us. Girls who want to study, play or do anything should get support from their families to get ahead.”
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