It's only been a few days since Deepa Malik returned from the Rio Paralympics with a historic shot put silver medal (she's the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympic Games), but she has already started preparing for the World Para Athletics Championships in London next year, and has plans to convert her silver into a gold at the next Paralympics!
Malik, 45, has been participating in sports competitions since 2006, and has won 58 gold medals at the national level and 18 at the international level. She's always loved sports, which for her, is "a lifestyle, a culture". The Arjuna Awardee has participated in swimming and track and field events, is a biker and car rally driver, and says that even before a spinal tumour left her paralysed from the chest down in 1999, she has always been "the outdoorsy type".
But her most recent success in Rio, she said, was all down to her intensive training in the months leading up to the Paralympics. Six months before Rio, she changed her preparation routine. She desperately needed to be able to throw further — at the World Para Athletics Championships in Doha last year, she had thrown a distance of 3.67 metres, and eight months of training leading up to the Paralympics had not made any difference. To be in the Olympics, she knew she would have to throw at least 4.4m. She had the skill and technique, but not the strength to do it, and that was what she needed to work on.
Malik's preparations for Rio involved a daily schedule constructed with clockwork precision: Wake up at 4 am, eat by 6, start training by 7.30. An intake of fluid, protein and carbohydrate was important before she started her routine, but as someone with paralysis needing to manage bowel and bladder movements artificially, they would have to be measured to exactly the right quantity and timed, so that it wouldn't get in the way of her workout.
Alarms on her phone would remind her to eat an egg or a fruit, depending on the time of day. An additional complication in Malik's routine was that she was menopausal, but could not take treatment to alleviate heaving bleeding or mood swings so as to not run into trouble during the dope tests. All of this had to be carefully managed, she says, with diet and exercise, using a catchphrase of hers: "mind over body". (Another pet catchphrase is "ability beyond disability").
Mornings would begin with weight training, working out different sections on different days. Sometimes it would be plyometrics training, other times inclined bench weight training, with sets and repetitions adding up to a total of around 8,000 kg on some days. Afternoon sessions would begin with relaxation and stretching to counter muscle contractions from spastic paraplegia, before moving on to skill training.
To remain focused, she gave up on WhatsApp and social media, moved to Gurgaon from South Delhi, and stayed away from her old social circles. Her husband Bikram Singh Malik, who is also her skill trainer, took a six-month sabbatical from his corporate job (he took voluntary retirement from the Indian Army when Malik decided to re-enter the world of sports in 2006) to give her 24/7 assistance with her training.
She stopped using a regular trainer like she had done before, and changed her workout routine with the help of biomechanics muscle trainer Vaibhav Sirohi, isolating muscle groups and working them out separately, so as not to negatively impact the muscles she had no control over. Dr Chirag Sethi advised her on nutrition; her daughter Devika Malik, a psychologist, helped with the mental aspect of her training.
This was the first time Malik had the luxury of having a team around her, which was made possible thanks to funding from the Target Olympic Podium scheme. It also meant she could afford a good diet (six eggs and half a kilo of meat everyday) and still keep her household running, and funding is what Malik believes made all the difference this time around, not just to her, but the entire team of 19 athletes that represented India at the 2016 Paralympics.
"Nobody ever thought that Deepa Malik, after three spinal surgeries, at 45 and in one of the most severely disabled categories, would increase her throwing distance by a metre," she said.
At Rio, Malik threw her personal best of 4.61 m.
On an average day, when she isn't training for something specific, Malik's routine involves a few hours of cardio — swimming at least three times a week, and "self-wheeling" her wheelchair for at least 2-3 km a day. And around an hour and half of "maintenance" exercises — light dumbbells, stretch cords and the like.
Of course, hard training isn't always fun. "What I hate the most are anti-gravity exercises," Malik said. "When you lift weights against the ground, it requires so many people, because I don't have torso balance. Somebody has to be holding my legs, somebody holding my torso, somebody pulling my shoulder back, because my body has to be stabilised. That is when I feel a little…too disabled, more so than I really am."
But the best part of her routine is the early morning drive from Gurgaon to south Delhi for her training sessions. Racing remains Malik's favourite kind of sport — she returned to sports aged 36 in the "quest to be a biker again", and it was only in 2009 that she entered athletics in earnest. "I go because I get a chance to drive, to get out of the house. It's so beautiful, the roads are empty, and it really excites me," says Malik.