A Special Olympics medal that transformed Priya Devi into a slam-dunk heroine

Well done! Those are the words Priya Devi distinctly remembers welcoming her home after a successful campaign at the 2023 Special Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, in June this year.

Born in Rupnagar’s Mianpur village, Priya Devi, was part of the Indian team that won the silver at the 2023 Special Olympics in Berlin, Germany. (HT Photo)

Born in Rupnagar’s Mianpur village, Priya, whose parents, Parveen Kumar and Reena, had all but given up hopes of a bright future for her, could hardly believe the scenes unfolding in front of their eyes. Their young daughter, second-oldest among five siblings, received a rousing welcome at her native village.

Under multiple garlands wrapped around her neck was the shiny 5×5 basketball silver medal — an Olympic silver medal.

Roll the clock back to 2019, Priya was enrolled in school and had made it to Class 5, but faced difficulties writing her own name. She had barely any friends and did not socialise with her siblings either. Her parents, a painter and a daily wager, were at a loss at what was amiss.

A tryst with sports

A turning point came in Priya’s life when she was identified and eventually enrolled at the Ambuja Manovikas Kendra, an institution run by the namesake Ambuja Foundation that provides education to children with intellectual disabilities. The educators encouraged Priya’s parents to have her take an IQ test. The results showed that the then 12-year-old had an intellectual disability.

“The first few weeks were difficult. Priya did not socialise much and would follow her teacher around,” school principal Anupama Katnawar recalls.

Then came her tryst with the sporting field. The youngster took up co-curricular activities such as painting and sports. And while she enjoyed both in equal measure, the latter gave her long-term motivation.

Having spotted her talent during school sports meets, Priya’s teachers set eyes on the Punjab State Olympics 2019 — an event that doubles as a selection trial for higher tiers.

The youngster bagged medals in the 100-m walk and dash events. More importantly, she got a taste of a competitive spirit for the first time. There has been no stopping her since.

Giving wings to dreams

Priya and her team made a more serious bid for an Olympic berth in 2022 and she nearly made the cut in the cycling discipline only to fall short at the final step. “We knew she was disheartened even as she struggled to express it,” her teacher recalls.

But as destiny would have it, a second chance came her way in the form of Mohali selection trials for the basketball squad that was to represent India at the Special Olympics.

“Priya was more pumped for this second opportunity than we had ever seen. She would come in, get into her tracksuit and practice all day, no matter the weather or her own health on the day. She did not want to miss another chance,” the school principal says.

The youngster’s speed and rhythm on court was second to none and soon her dreams had wings.

“It was the first time I sat in an airplane. I was a little nervous, but it was one of the best experiences of my life,” Priya says of travelling to Puducherry for her first national camp, beaming with a smile.

After a series of selection/training camps, the day of reckoning had come. The shy, stubborn 17-year-old from Rupnagar’s Mianpur was headed to Berlin.

And before they knew it, the glitz and the excitement whizzed past them, and the team was in with a realistic chance of making their way to the podium. And so, they did with an emphatic win over China in the semifinals. While they lost the summit clash to Sweden, walking up to the podium to accept their medals was a major triumph for the young sporting heroes.

“My heart was filled with happiness when I came back and met my parents,” Priya says of her return home.

In many ways, she is still the same young girl who hates missing even a single day at school and still can’t decide if she enjoys holding a paintbrush more than a basketball. It’s almost as if she is yet to understand the magnitude of her achievement.

“I don’t feel much different. I still enjoy coming to school, cycling and spending time with my mom,” Priya affirms.

The shiny Berlin souvenir did, however, transform the young girl, or at least the journey did.

“Before she picked up basketball, she would not even speak much, let alone play with her siblings. Now, she has them on their toes chasing the big basketball all the time,” Priya’s father, who made countless trips to school when she’d miss the bus without worrying about being late to work, says with a sense of gratitude for what the sport has done for his daughter.

He and his wife are people of few words. Priya, however, in her own unique way made sure that they added two more — “well done” — to their diction.

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