This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.

“Look at these photos carefully. Do you think people can call me apang [disabled] now?” says the 58-year-old Kiran Bavadekar, a resident of the Nigave Dumala village in Karvir taluka of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, while showing his wrestling photographs. “Why are disabled athletes not allowed to compete with the normal ones? It’s like casteism in the world of sports [sic],” he adds.

At the age of three, Bavadekar started suffering from polio in both the legs. Today, he is an athlete, wrestler, body-builder, swimmer, coach, farmer, and a cashier in the bank. He has won 15 medals at the national level, 38 at the state level and seven other prestigious awards for his overall achievement in weight lifting, bodybuilding, 50 and 100 metres freestyle swimming, discus throw, shot put and Javelin throw. “What is the use of all these certificates? I don’t even want to frame them on the wall. What good will it do to anyone?” he asks boldly. From the childhood days, Bavadekar’s dream has been to fight the 'disabled' and 'handicapped' label. “A lot of athletes win medals at Paralympics, but why don’t we talk about their hardships and life?” he asks.

Above: Some of Bavadekar's certificates

Battling polio

"At the age of four, I ran immediately [to my mother] after seeing a monkey in the house. She was surprised to see me run without any support,” he recollects smilingly.

In 2013, a two-wheeled vehicle fell on his left leg. He was immediately operated, with four supporting rods being inserted in the leg. “It felt like breaking sugarcane. My leg suddenly became so brittle,” he remembers. In 2015, the same tragedy shook him again, and this time it was the right leg. “I started laughing when I went to the hospital. 75 percent polio in the legs, four rods in the left leg, and now the doctors inserted two more rods attached by nine screws in my right leg. How bad can it get?” he says smilingly.

Above: Everyday, Bavadekar works out for 90 minutes

His father, the late Balwant, was a Kho-Kho and Kabaddi player, and a coach. “He never made me feel disabled. He would firmly say that making you walk is my responsibility,” recollects Bavadekar. This inspired him to face the name shaming, and he never isolated himself from his ‘normal’ friends.

“I wanted to walk like normal people, and I knew it would require a lot of sacrifices,” he recollects. Starting at the age of 14, every night from 10.30 to 4 in the morning, he would go to a defunct wrestling ground in the village for the next five years. Every day he would do 10,000 sit-ups holding a rope to ensure he doesn’t fall. later he started doing 2,000-2,500 push-ups every night. “I kept falling, and then I would rise up again. It was a repetitive drill till the time I could finally walk on both my legs,” he says proudly.

Wrestling

Once while practising at the ground, a teenager named Tanaji Patil from the nearby Nerli village walked up to him. “Do you want to play wrestling?” he asked me. “I said yes, and every day for the next two months he would teach me the basics.”

He started wrestling in the competitions at the age of 16. “I lost badly in the first game in the nearby Wadange village. It taught me several techniques,” he says. In the village fare of Kolhapur district, wrestling remains the central highlight. Bavadekar contested in 450 such matches winning more than 400.

Above: A photo of Bavadekar taken in 1981 after he won the body building completion at National level held in Punjab

A lot of people used to gather to see him wrestle. “After I started winning, many fellow wrestlers stopped competing with me,” he says. “They feared to lose their reputation. People would always taunt them by saying that a panglya [slang for handicapped in Marathi] defeated them.”

His family members never knew about his wrestling for seven years. “I never told them that I won several competitions. My mother never wanted me to do such things because she was afraid if anything happened to me,” he explains.

Above: Every day Bavadekar does the leg press exercise with at least 40 kilogram

His father got to know of it accidentally. “Once I was wrestling in a nearby village, and my father was there for some work. One of his friends informed him that your son is wrestling,” he recollects smilingly. Initially, Balwant was shocked, but after seeing him win, he proudly started announcing that Bavadekar is his son. His mother, the late Prabhavati, would never let him sit idle. He mentions that his mother always wanted him to do something in life and never let him think of the disability.

“I was never allowed to wrestle at the district or state level because the association deemed me physically unfit,” he says with a rage. “I have been arguing with the association ever since that even the disabled like us can wrestle, but this rule is here to stay forever.”

Above: An old photo of Bavadekar in the body building competition

Service to others

After retiring from the sports in 1995, Bavadekar decided to start saving money for his dream. For close to the past three decades he has been working as a bank cashier. “I want to train as many rural kids as possible,” he says with hopeful eyes. In 2000, he started off his own gym in the same village, named after his master, the late Subhash Salunkhe with an initial investment of Rs 11,000. After taking loans several times, he bought equipment and machines worth close to Rs 10 lakh. Every day his gym starts at 4.45 in the morning, and the training continues till about 8 am. He resumes it after completing his bank shift at 5.30 in the evening and mentors rural students till 8 pm.

Every day without fail, he works out for 90 minutes and does the leg press exercise with at least 40 kilograms of weights. “There is no retirement in the gym,” he says laughingly. Even before starting his gym, he used to train younger students in the village. So far, he estimates that he has trained more than 20,000 students.

Above: Bavadekar with some of his students at his gym

Currently, 40 students train every day in the gym for physical fitness required to crack the police and armed forces entrance examinations. “Around 350 students of mine have joined the armed forces, and 16 have become police inspectors,” he says proudly.

He started off with monthly fees of Rs 10 which has now increased to Rs 250. Students from the nearby 10 villages have enrolled in his gym. “A lot of the students don’t pay me fees, but that’s alright. I know their background and struggles,” he says. These struggles remind him of how he had to keep shifting jobs because of the delay in payments. So far, he has changed close to 30 jobs in and around the Kolhapur city. “Sometimes I would work as a compositor in the press, sometimes as labourer, coach, trainer, and what not,” he says.

Above: The late Subhash Salunkhe, Bavadekar’s mentor and coach

For the past two decades, Bavadekar has been conducting marathon for kids of several schools in the Karvir taluka of Kolhapur. He spends his own money on organising these competitions. “Even if you don’t want to become an athlete, you should at least exercise for 20 minutes. It can be anything, even as simple as dancing to your favourite song,” he explains.

His elder son, Prathamesh, 19, was born with four holes in the heart and has undergone bypass surgery twice. “Doctors said that he wouldn't live long. Every day he exercises in the gym for an hour,” he says. His younger son, Vikrant, 16, also joins them. Bavadekar also farms on his 10 gunta land [0.24 acre] where he cultivates sugarcane and groundnut.

Lack of support

One of the biggest challenges he is facing right now is the lack of funds to key in more machines and the unavailability of bigger space. He narrates, “A lot of people donate the old machines which are worse than the scrap. People forget their past and how they struggled to achieve something in life. None of my students have ever come back to help their fellow villagers. I don’t want any fame. I just want this to become a never-ending movement of rural kids into the sports.”

Above: So far, Bavadekar has invested close to Rs 10 lakh in his gym from loans and personal savings

Bavadekar also mentions that people love watching sports, but they don’t want their children to pick it up. However, he doesn’t blame people for this. “There is rampant corruption in sports. Anything except cricket is not encouraged, and there are no resources for rural kids. Why will someone want their children to suffer then?” he says sadly. Talking about the lack of resources, he says, “Where are the playgrounds left in the villages now? Most of them have encroached.”

So far only two disabled kids have come to him for training. However, both quit within a few months. “Society doesn’t care for the disabled kids. Why don’t parents motivate them and work hard to ensure they never give up? They aren’t treated as equals,” he says angrily.

Above: Bavadekar training his students

He also complains about most of the government offices not located on the ground floor. “There are ramps, but no wheelchairs. We proudly use the word divyang, but do we care for them?” he asks.

Looking back at his struggle, he says, “I hated it when people used to call me panglya. I always told myself that someday I am going to get rid of this name shaming. Wrestling got me a lot of fame.” However, Bavadekar asserts that he has to do a lot more now. Right now his biggest goal is to create a network of people who will carry on the same work and ensure that rural kids reach the highest level in sports. “You should always see what’s the best you can do in any situation.”

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