At age eight, Hitesh Ramchandani took part in his first sports day race and came in last. It was a wonderful triumph as he has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects muscles, movement and motor skills.
"Hitesh fell six or seven times along the way. His knees were bleeding," recalls his father, Mr Ganesh Ramchandani, 53, of that memorable race at his son's alma mater, Haig Boys' Primary School.
"I felt that he would not be able to finish the race, but he did. When he wants to do something, he doesn't give up. He's shown resilience since childhood."
Now pursuing a foundation degree in sports science at PSB Academy, Hitesh, 23, an ACS (Barker Road) Secondary alumnus, exercises about three hours a day.
Last year, he represented Singapore in football at the 7th ASEAN Para Games in Myanmar and the Incheon Asian Para Games.
In April this year, he launched his autobiography, Better Than Normal, which is about overcoming the challenges in his life.
As a baby, Hitesh could not lift his head and found it difficult to hold a milk bottle.
But, encouraged by his parents, he took part in sports at a young age.
When he was about eight, he felt "left out" when he saw other kids cycling at the beach. He took 91 days to learn to cycle, at one point steering his bike into the swimming pool at the condominium his family lived in then. He started swimming and tennis classes around the age of nine and roller-blading at age 11.
His parents also motivated him in other ways. His father, the founder and managing director of a coal-mining and trading company, "banned" wheelchairs from their home when Hitesh was in kindergarten. "If you don't see the wheelchair, you're forced to walk. At first, it hurt, but eventually my muscles grew strong," says Hitesh.
His mother, Mrs Bina Ramchandani, 47, is a housewife who teaches yoga part-time. His younger sister Natasha, 19, is a student at Anglo-Chinese School (International). The family live in a semi-detached house in Tanjong Katong.
Hitesh says his parents "always treated me like a normal kid. They always gave me positive affirmation, which is partly why I want to be an international motivational speaker. If I can do it, I think others can do better".
Hitesh, who has been giving motivational speeches in places such as the Toastmasters Club of Singapore, is taking the first step towards his goal. At the end of the year, he will be giving a motivational speech in Florida at an event organised by American wealth coach JT Foxx.
Why are you so interested in sports?
Hitesh: I wanted my condition to improve, so I took up whatever sport helped me to do so. Cycling improves my balance and flexibility. My stamina has improved through football and I gained strength through kickboxing. The thing about my condition is, if I don't keep up the momentum, the level drops.
Mr Ramchandani: Unlike many children, he had to spend a lot of time on exercise, physiotherapy, swimming, speech therapy. He's had to dedicate a few hours each day to his health since he was young. What was your childhood like?
Hitesh: Once, when I was about four, I went to the playground with my domestic helper and a group of boys didn't want to play with me. They were scared because they thought I had some disease. I walked differently, like a drunk. My left hand was twisted and my speech was bad. I went home crying and my parents consoled me. They encouraged me to go out and play. They were not embarrassed by my condition.
Mrs Ramchandani: Doctors recommended that he went to a special education school for Primary 1. I was very against it. He always wanted to do what other children did. As a child, he wanted a scooter though he couldn't walk properly. I bought it for him and he eventually mastered it. He embraces challenges. He's gone jetskiing on his own, for instance.
Hitesh: One reason could be to prove to myself that I can exceed limitations. Another reason, to prove to others that they shouldn't look down on me.
Which parent are you closer to?
Hitesh: I am close to both of them. I go jogging, swimming and to the gym with my father. He grew up in a poor family but got to where he is today because he is such a tough fighter. It's very motivating for me. I do yoga with my mother, a very kind-hearted woman. I am also close to my sister. We've gone partying together.
Mr Ramchandani: He's close to both of us, though he used to be closer to his mother because I travelled a lot. My wife is his firm supporter, she never allowed him to feel different. She doesn't want anybody to say, "Poor Hitesh".
How were you disciplined as a child?
Hitesh: I was quite an obedient child. However, I became frustrated and aggressive when I was a teenager and became more aware of my condition. I threw things on the floor and started asking questions like, "How come I am different?"
My parents understood and directed my mind to positive stuff. For instance, they encouraged me to take up kickboxing in Secondary 3. It was a good way to vent my anger.
Mr Ramchandani: He did not need much disciplining. He didn't throw tantrums to ask for toys. If he wanted a toy, he would look at it and smile.
Mrs Ramchandani: While giving him unconditional love, I still disciplined him like any normal child, by scolding or beating him. Sometimes, I wouldn't talk to him and he would come to my room and say sorry.
What are your views on caning?
Hitesh: They only threatened to use the cane, but never actually did.
Mr Ramchandani: One should not use the cane unless the child has done something really wrong. I've hit him only once when, at 16, he was very rebellious. He went out and didn't tell us where he was. We were worried because of his physical condition. He returned only at 3am.
Mrs Ramchandani: I don't believe in caning. The child doesn't understand if the cane is used and will get more stubborn.
If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?
Mrs Ramchandani: I can't imagine having cerebral palsy so I can't make a judgment on that.
Mr Ramchandani: Nothing. We are more or less similar. I'm determined. I was a delivery man at 21 years old, but I would not allow myself to live as a poor man.
Hitesh: I wouldn't have done anything differently. If I have a child with cerebral palsy, I would do everything I can to help him, just as my parents have helped me.
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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