x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

New happiness for 'the girl with one good leg who conquered Everest'

Arunima Sinha lost a leg after being thrown from a train but not her ambition to do something special in life. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports

Arunima Sinha poses with the Indian flag on Mount Everest.
Arunima Sinha poses with the Indian flag on Mount Everest.

NEW DELHI // Arunima Sinha spends much of her time talking to Indian school girls who see her as an inspirational figure.

"These little girls looking up at me, telling me how they followed my journey, this is a different kind of happiness I cannot describe," said Ms Sinha, 26.

This journey started on April 11, 2011 when robbers threw her off a train. To save her life, doctors had no choice but to amputate her left leg below the knee, which ended a promising volleyball career and her hopes of joining the military. But just two years later she achieved something she thought impossible: she scaled 8,848 metres to stand atop Mount Everest, becoming the "first female amputee in the world to do so.

Since Ms Sinha's return to Lucknow, her home town in Uttar Pradesh, she has been swamped by fans and curious onlookers who have come to "see the girl that climbed Mount Everest with one good leg", said Om Prakash, her brother-in-law.

Ms Sinha wanted to follow in her late father's footsteps and join the army. She says her mother, who works in the health department of Uttar Pradesh, and her sister encouraged her to reach her goal.

"They never thought to stop me," she said, adding that her new ambition is to build an academy that offers free education and sports facilities to poor and physically challenged children.

Ms Sinha recalls the robbery matter-of-factly, saying the event that changed her life "happened within two minutes".

She was traveling from Lucknow to Delhi on the evening train for state-run security force exams when five men attempted to snatch her necklace and purse.

"I was seated by the corner berth in the train. I resisted, they kicked me very hard. I fell out of the train," she said.

She was then hit by a passing train and sustained serious injuries to her pelvis and left leg.

When Ms Sinha was making her way up Everest's treacherous slopes, she drew on her past experiences for strength.

As she neared summit, the oxygen in her tanks was running low and her trainer repeatedly asked her to abandon the ascent.

"I wanted to show the world that fate can play such a cruel joke on you but you can turn your life around," Ms Sinha said. "I could not get it out of my head but I knew I wanted to live a life of dignity after losing my leg. And I wanted to achieve this milestone."

Although Ms Sinha was trailing the six members of her team, she pushed on and on May 21, she reached the summit of the world's tallest mountain.

It was an incredible feat given her lack of mountaineering experience and that just two years before she was lying in a hospital bed, her athletic career seemingly in ruins.

"Everyone was saying her sports career was over," said Mr Prakash. "But right there, even as she was recovering in that hospital bed she was determined to do something with her life. She is very strong."

In the news reports that had followed the attack, police said she had tried to commit suicide or had jumped out of the train to avoid paying a fine for not buying a ticket - claims she vehemntly disputes. And as the police struggled to make headway in the case, the media coverage increased.

Ms Sinha's story then caught the attention of the government and she was moved to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi where she was fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg.

It was here that she had to learn to walk again.

As news spread of Ms Sinha's injury, the sports fraternity reached out and sent messages of support.

She fondly remembers receiving a message from India's World Cup winning cricketer Yuvraj Singh, who had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his left lung at the same time Ms Sinha was recovering.

"He called me and said that I was a brave sports girl but at that time I did not know about his struggles," said Ms Sinha.

It was only a year later that Ms Sinha heard about Singh's battle with cancer.

"That inspired me. I thought to myself, 'why can't I do something with my life. If a man can battle cancer, I can surely climb a mountain'."

In March last year, Ms Sinha reached out to Bachendri Pal, who in 1984 became the first Indian woman to scale Mount Everest. Ms Sinha started training with Ms Pal at the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) based in Jharkhand state.

Ms Pal heads the initiative led by the Tata Steel Group, which was established 29 years ago with the aim of encouraging adventure sport among Indians.

"We had to help her in every way," said Pervez Phiroz Kapadia, the secretary of TSAF. "You can imagine a non-mountain climber comes, we have to start from the beginning. Physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. Every way."

Although the institute has in the past trained visually impaired and the hearing challenged to climb mountains, it was the first time they had worked with an amputee.

After a year of training, Ms Sinha set off on her ascent of Everest with a trainer, two other mountaineers and three sherpas.

"When we took a break they came to tell me that the whole country was waiting and watching," Ms Sinha said of the sherpas. "That's when I thought, I must do this. I must achieve my goal."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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