Dinesh Kumar Shanmugam celebrates after competing in the 50m Breaststroke Competition on day four of the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023 on June 20, 2023 | Image Credit: Getty Images
Born with a speech impediment, a learning disability and a low IQ, Dinesh Kumar Shanmugam had no idea where his life was headed — until he found his calling in swimming.
The 22-year-old from Chennai won the silver medal in the 50m breaststroke Level A event with a timing of 46.59 seconds at the Special Olympics World Summer Games here.
“Why do I swim and not play another sport? Because I’m good at it,” says Dinesh, pausing, before cutting it short: “I like it because it’s me, water and the finish line.”
Now a BSC visual communication final year student at Chennai-based Jain College, Dinesh as a youth was prone to attention deficit and hyperactivity.
His bewildered parents tried many options including swimming while his mother, Ganesavalli, pushed him towards the sport by taking him to the pool regularly. It has several uses.
Dinesh’s parents hope therapeutic but demanding water training will help.
Dinesh progressed through the ranks, often training in areas without coaches trained to work with children with special needs. However, his results exceeded expectations.
But Dinesh has yet to realize his full potential without a coach to understand his “special needs”.
It was about five summers back that life took a U-turn for Dinesh at a local swimming meet.
It was there that the duo of Manikandan Subramani and Lata first saw the boy and gave a life-changing piece of advice to Dinesh’s parents.
Subramani and Lata’s son Gokul Srinivasan won two medals in swimming — gold in the 1500m freestyle and silver in the 800m freestyle — at the World Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019, training under Vellachari Satish in Chennai.
Satish is not a regular coach; he heads the Brio Sports Academy for Special Needs in Chennai.
Manikandan and Lata ask her if she will take Dinesh under her wing, introduce them, and the parents to start the relationship.
This was the beginning of a successful journey that changed Dinesh forever.
“When he (Dinesh) came he was impatient, and would get angry and angry with other athletes if he felt things were not going well for him,” Satish recalled.
“We started using swimming as a motivating tool, as well as a therapeutic tool. We pushed him by giving him times to break, laps to improve, and that’s where he shared his anger and focus.
“He is very dedicated, and that is what really separates him from others,” the coach added.
What sets swimming events apart at the Special Olympics World Games, however, is the audible universality of the cheers that follow the starting guns.
There are no shouted instructions and no single name is shouted.
Instead, in unison, the crowd rose and cheered in each heat, each swimmer equally in a rare event.
Satish, who did not join his ward in Berlin, says that Dinesh has now learned to like applause.
“I haven’t been to Berlin, because I want to be here at the academy at this time, but every day when we talk in the evening, I ask him how he is and he tells me that he likes the cheering in the stadium.
“So now, we have told him that instead of challenging himself with just a medal, he should also make sure he always hears more cheers,” he signed off.
176 Special Olympics Bharat athletes are competing in 16 sports disciplines at the Special Olympics World Games.