Born with speech impairment, learning disability and low IQ, Dinesh Kumar Shanmugam was clueless where his life was heading -- until he found his calling in swimming. (More Sports News)
The 22-year-old from Chennai has won a silver medal in the 50m breaststroke Level A event with a timing of 46.59 seconds at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Berlin.
"Why do I swim and not play some other sport? Because I'm good at it," Dinesh said, pausing, before succinctly putting it: "I like because it's me, water and finish line."
Now a BSC visual communication final year student at the Chennai-based Jain College, Dinesh as a youngster was prone to attention deficiency and hyperactivity.
His distraught parents tried out many options including swimming as his mother, Ganesavalli, pushed him towards the sport by taking him to the pool regularly.
It was of some use.
Dinesh's parents hoped the therapeutic, but demanding water training would help.
Dinesh progressed through the levels, often training in areas that did not have coaches trained to work with special needs children. And yet, his results exceeded expectations.
But Dinesh was yet to realise his full potential without a coach who would realise his "special needs".
It was about five summers back life took a U-turn for Dinesh at a local swimming meet.
There the duo of Manikandan Subramani and Lata first spotted the youngster and gave one life-changing advice to Dinesh's parents.
Subramani and Lata's son Gokul Srinivasan had won two medals in swimming -- gold in the 1500m freestyle and silver in 800m freestyle -- at the World Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019, training under Vellachari Satish in Chennai.
Satish is no regular coach; he heads the Brio Sports Academy for Special Needs in Chennai.
Manikandan and Lata asked him if he would take Dinesh under his wing, introduced them, and the parents to kick off the relationship.
It was the start of a successful journey that transformed Dinesh forever.
"When he (Dinesh) came, he was impatient, and would get angry and lash out at other athletes if he felt like things were not going well for him," Satish recollected.
"We started using swimming as a motivating tool, as well as a therapeutic tool. We would push him by giving him times to break, laps to improve, and he channelled his anger and focus there.
"He's super dedicated, and that's really what separated him from everyone else," the coach added.
What separates the swimming events at the Special Olympics World Games, though, is the audible universality of the cheers that follow the starters gun.
There are no bellowed instructions and no single name is screamed at.
Instead, in unison, the crowd rises up and cheers onward each heat, each swimmer equally in a rare phenomenon.
Satish, who did not accompany his ward to Berlin, says Dinesh has now learnt to like the applause.
"I haven't gone to Berlin, because I wanted to be here at the academy this time around, but every day when we talk in the evening, I ask him how he is and he tells me he loves the cheering in the stadium.
"So now, we've told him that instead of challenging himself with just a medal, he should also make sure he constantly hears a lot more cheers," he signed off.
176 Special Olympics Bharat athletes are competing across 16 sports disciplines in the Special Olympics World Games.