She cannot remember the exact date, but it was when she was around three years old that disaster had struck. Geeta S. Rao had a bout of high fever and the doctor had given her an injection. Taken home, she had gone off to sleep. When she woke up, she could not move. Later, the doctor had told her family that she may never be able to walk. The polio virus had infected her entire body.
Her life story is one of grit and determination. It is about the single-minded pursuit of her goal and having the courage to achieve it, while winning numerous awards and recognition on the way.
The early years
The life that followed was full of pain and struggles for both her and the family. Her family went out of their way to show Geeta that despite being differently-abled, she could do and achieve all that she wanted to. They raised her like the rest of her siblings and never treated her differently. During her days of recovering from polio, her parents trained her to do everything on her own. It taught her to be self-confident and independent.
“It was the best thing they (my family) gave me. I was raised like I was no different from my other siblings and this boosted my self-confidence. They all struggled hard to help me stand on my own legs and showed me in their own way that I could do everything in life that I wanted to. I chased most of my dreams and enjoyed bungee jumping, paragliding, trekking, travelling, badminton, water sports, cycling and triathlons,” Geeta recalls of her early years.
Not having a childhood like any of the kids around, was the least of her problems. But if there was ever a story of fighting against all odds, never giving up and achieving the target that one set out to, this was certainly one.
Due to her illness, Geeta could not ride a bicycle in her childhood. In February 2016, there was cyclothon scheduled in Ahmedabad, and Geeta registered herself for the 14-kilometre ‘green ride.’ She started practicing on the bicycle gifted to her seven-year-old nephew, seeing it as a good fitness option. While others were whizzing past her, she could not ride for even 200 metres on the cycle.
Saddened, Geeta returned home, accompanied by her younger sister. She decided to forget about the cyclothon. Three days later, on February 14, her younger sister, Dimple, and her family gifted Geeta a basic road bike. “This was the best Valentine’s Day gift my sister and family gave me because after riding it, for the first time in life I felt that I could fly on a bicycle,” Geeta recalls.
But the failure of not being able to ride the bicycle was difficult to take. After failing to cycle 200 metres, she decided to set her own goals. She told herself to never ever quit cycling and decided to participate in the general category, not the specially-abled one, till her cycling goals were achieved. After all, that is what her parents had taught her.
“I had convinced myself that I wanted to cycle for 200 kilometres. It was a target I had set for myself,” she says, the failure to do so fresh in her mind.
There was no company while practicing cycling because of her speed. She decided to walk solo on her path because she did not want to quit. She learnt everything about the bike – servicing, fixing punctures and brakes repair, changing the tyre and tube – whenever she faced a problem. She watched online videos, read books and articles that helped her learn about handling tough situations on road when no immediate support was available. There were times when cycling alone, she would fall and hurt her legs and had many physical injuries. She also needed to rest for extended periods of time. But she emerged stronger after every fall, every challenge.
The initial days of learning were quick. She had managed to handle the cycle and just a week later, on February 21, she completed her first cycling event, a 14-kilometre green ride at a cyclothon.
Says Geeta, “Initially, getting my leg on the pedal was the biggest problem. Just after few pedals, the foot would go off the pedal without me realising it. It would go in any direction. And when it went off the pedal, my mind would often not know of it. I only realised when it hurt later. It would result in a sudden fall, sometimes hurt by the pedal, and occasionally fly into the spokes of the wheel or even collide with the crank, leaving me severely injured.”
But the dogged determination in her was not ready to give in.
On March 17, 2016, Geeta rode 50 kilometres for the first time ever. That spurred her to take up new challenges in cycling and grow her ambition. She was learning fast and in a matter of days- on March 20 to be precise, she had touched 115 kilometres with her first ever competitive race – The Polo Impossible Road Race.
With more than 100 kilometres of distance covered, her ambition took further flight. Three weeks before a triathlon event in Chennai, that involved 1.5 kilometres of swimming, 40 kilometres of cycling and 10 kilometres of running, a cycling friend registered Geeta to take part. At the time of her registration, Geeta did not know swimming! Not one to let a challenge go past her, she began training and on the appointed day, completed the course well under two minutes of the time permitted, earning a new badge of ‘Olympic Triathlete’ by creating a new record history for Chennai Trekking Club (CTC).
It was not unusual to find her riding long distances, often outside the city, to stay fit. It also helped her to keep up with the training schedule. During one of those regular rides outside her city, Geeta wanted to enter a defence area that belonged to the Border Security Force (BSF). Cycling there would have been more fun, she thought, since it was yet another new place that she would get to see.
Her persistence paid off. For the Independence Day celebrations in 2017, along with five other cyclists from Ahmedabad, she was invited to join the festivities. She had found new friends!
602 km in 39 hours!
Since she had already fallen in love with long-distance, solo cycling, she decided to try her hand at randonneuring- a long-distance cycling sport. In randonneuring, riders attempt courses of 200 km or more, passing through predetermined checkpoints at regular intervals. The course had to be completed within a specified time and riders could travel in groups or solo and were expected to be self-sufficient between controls.
She did her first 200-kilometre brevet on November 20, 2016 but could only finish 30 minutes later than the cut-off timings. There was no separate entry for differently-abled cyclists, resulting in a LF (Late Finish) ranking, and missing being a randonneur. This was surely her next challenge!
She took this failure as her new task and attempted the 200-kilometre brevet again on December 31 and finally became a randonneur. Geeta attempted the 300-kilometre brevet on July 16, 2017, which resulted in a DNF (Did Not Finish). She attempted again on September 17 and this time completed it within the time limit. Gradually, she finished the 400- and 600-kilometre brevets as well on October 1. But luck was not with her as she missed the title ‘Super Randonneur’ after completing her 600-kilometre brevet, because of a 15-minute delay at the last intermediate control point.
Super Randonneur (SR) is the title earned by any rider who completes a series of brevets (200-, 300-, 400- and 600-kilometre) in the same calendar year, ending on October 31 each year. But after the 600-km brevet, she got multiple physical injuries and could not ride for next 40 days.
After recovering from her injuries, she started riding in the 300-kilometre brevet in November and completed the entire SR series rides in just 41 days. That earned her the title of being India’s first differently-abled ‘Super Randonneur.’
Geeta now wants to represent India at the Paralympics and other national and international key races, and is looking for sponsors to support her. The wheels have turned to become her wings to fly and have taken her to places that she could never have imagined.
For Geeta, where there is a wheel, there’s her way!