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9 Feb 2017

Abandoned as an infant, girl goes places in wheelchair - Paralympic podium finish to PhD, impossible is nothing

Sudeshna Banerjee,TT, Feb. 8: She was abandoned as a newborn in a Calcutta nursing home, picked up by an orphanage nearby, adopted by an American couple and, within months of her arrival in the US, diagnosed with an infection that left her paralysed waist downwards.
Anjali Forber-Pratt was less than six months old then. Today, at 32, she is an elite American sportsperson with two Paralympic medals and, for a while, the world record holder in wheelchair racing.
Former President Barack Obama had named Anjali a "Champion of Change" in 2013. For six years, until October 2015, she served on the board of directors of Disabled Sports USA. Add three university degrees to her name and you get the multi-talented Dr Anjali Forber-Pratt!
Anjali and her Calcutta connect came up when Metro was researching the International Mission of Hope, a defunct orphanage founded by American Cherie Clark that had sent hundreds of abandoned babies to foster homes across the US and Canada in the 80s.
For Anjali, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, her early identity was like "Swiss cheese with many holes". All she knows is that she was born and abandoned at Sanjeevani Nursing Home in Calcutta, from where she was shifted to a Tollygunge orphanage that would be her home for two-and-a-half months.
Anjali keeps reminding people that she wasn't born with a disability or struck by disease when she was in India. "People wrongly assume that I had polio in India," she said.
Shortly after being taken to the US, Anjali contracted transverse myelitis, an infection that "randomly affects the spinal cord". Her adoptive parents Larry Pratt and Rosalind Forber living near Boston proved decisive on two counts - access to "amazing medical care" and the Boston Marathon.
"I grew up in Natick, on the marathon's eight-mile mark. It was such a big influence on me that every Halloween, when other girls dressed up as fairy princess, I would dress like a marathon winner. When I was five, cheering the participants on Route 135, I spotted people in wheelchairs racing," she recalled.
Little Anjali wanted to do the same. Her parents found a Saturday sports club for children with disabilities an hour's drive away and she was soon training to be an athlete. "Because of sport, I finally had friends in wheelchairs. That made me feel normal," she said.
Anjali was soon competing at the national level, winning a total of four gold, six silver and two bronze medals in four consecutive appearances in the Junior National Wheelchair Games. In between, at age 13, she broke both wrists in an accident. Forced into a hiatus from wheelchair racing, she turned to downhill skiing, which put less pressure on her wrists. "I started dreaming of competing in the Paralympics. Downhill skiing, I thought, would be my event," said the junior division gold medallist in the giant slalom event of the Chevy Truck Disabled World Cup in Colorado, 1999.
In school, Anjali had to fight to be treated like anyone else without a disability. "A teacher who was taking rolls stopped at my name and asked what I was doing in a college track class when I could not go to college. Yes, there is discrimination and repression even in the US," she said.
The spunky 14-year-old hired a lawyer and took on her school district in a federal lawsuit that continued for four years. "I knew I wouldn't benefit but I wanted things to be better for those after me," Anjali said.
In 2002, she joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which had a great disability sports programme. But the flat midlands offered little scope for skiing. In 2006, she started graduate school and met Adam Bleakney, the coach of the university's wheelchair racing team. "I was soon training six days a week after school."
She was on the national team the very next year, bringing home two gold medals and a bronze from the Parapan American Games in Brazil and then realising her Paralympic dream in Beijing in 2008, winning two bronze medals. In January 2011, at the World Championships in New Zealand, she got a gold and two silver.
Her best came in May that year, when she competed in Switzerland in the 200m. "They made the announcement in German. I had one year of German in high school and remembered the numbers. So I could just about make out that my time was 29.17 seconds. Yes, I had done it!" she recalled.
By 2007, Anjali had completed graduate school. "But I didn't want to leave the coach and my team; I kept getting degrees so I could stay on," she smiled.
Recovering from four years of medical problems and a surgery, Anjali had participated in the US Paralympic trials but did not make it to Rio.
So, is Tokyo 2020 out of reach? Not for someone whose PhD dissertation was titled "Dream. Drive. Do."

Anjali is an inspiration to us all because... Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com

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