Masala Magazine Thailand

Home » Divij Shah, three-time Para-Cycling Silver Medallist, is blazing a trail with his dedication and hunger to win

Divij Shah, three-time Para-Cycling Silver Medallist, is blazing a trail with his dedication and hunger to win

by Nikki Kumar

Pedal To The Medal


There are people you meet in life that are so dedicated to their craft, and have forged their own path so clearly, that others are drawn in their wake, inspired to follow not the same path, but a similar one towards success. Divij Shah is one such person, a literal tour de force who has found what he calls his “spark of madness which makes us unique.”

Born and raised in Calcutta, Divij moved me first with the candid and sanguine way he told me his story of losing his arm at only four years old. “I was at my grandmother’s place and I was playing paper airplanes with my younger cousin,” he recalled. “My mum and aunt were going down an elevator, which had collapsible gates back then, and I had put my right arm through the gate to hand her the paper plane as I was done playing with it. At that very moment, while my arm was still through the gates, someone pressed the button from the ground floor, the lift went down, and my arm got cut. I watched it happen in front of me: there were sparks and blood, and I didn’t feel pain then as the shock had overpowered the pain at the moment. I walked back into the house, and that’s when I blacked out from blood loss. Next time I woke up, I was in the hospital, and my arm was bandaged; it’d been cut off entirely in the accident itself.

When I asked him if he could understand the reality of how much his life would change at that moment, he told me very matter-of-factly, “I was four years old, so I was very young. I obviously had to adapt to a lot of things with just one arm – how to eat with a spoon, hold things, balance things. But because it happened at such a young age, I adapted and grew with it. It feels like life has almost always been this way.”

This incident didn’t dim the fire inside Divij – in fact it only and has only continued to fan the flames of his passion to achieve more. He first pursued a career in cricket, like many other kids his age, and found success; but at the same time, he
also pursued his education, finishing his Mater’s of Science and MBA, then a career in finance; after which he pursued his ultimate passion of cycling. After falling in love with Southeast Asia after a brief stint in Indonesia, he moved to Bangkok after his company, AppsFlyer, moved him to their Asian headquarters. A Commercial Partnerships Manager by day, he still pursues cycling, competing at an international level for the first time in five years in June of this year. He spoke to Masala about his life motto of “be strong and don’t give up,” and how he’s cycling towards success and hopefully, a gold medal for India.

At just six years old, you faced rejection for the first time when you weren’t allowed to join a cricket team. At that age, how did you find the resilience to keep pursuing your passion for sports?

As an Indian, almost 90 percent of us love cricket. I’d watch my cousins and friends play from a very young age, and I wondered, why can’t I play this too? My father guided me and supported me, telling me how to make the adjustments – how to hold the cricket, how to catch a ball, etc. And I was crap, obviously, when I started playing. As with any other kid, it took time to learn. But I decided to make those changes to adapt with just one hand – how to use my right hand to support so that I wouldn’t always just hit sixes. There was a fire within me – I wanted to do what others were doing. That drove a lot of things in me. My motto since then has always been: be strong, and don’t give up. They were my core pillars from the very beginning. I trained hard, and eventually was accepted into the West Bengal Under 16 Cricket Team.

Joining the West Bengal Under 16 Cricket Team must have been a significant milestone for you. How did this early success shape your athletic journey?

By the time I was 12-14, I was playing cricket every day and getting better with each practice. Like almost every other kid in the country, I wanted to play cricket for the country, and be a part of the Indian cricket team. My aspirations were high, and I knew I had to do what was needed. I was given the chance to represent the state when I was around 14 years old. There was a lot of failure and a lot of learning – I was primarily a spin bowler (and still am) and I remember bowling a lot of overs. I played so badly during certain games that I felt completely dejected. But I consider life to be similar to how the markets move – they don’t always go up, there’s always pull backs. Those pull backs in life reminded me that I had to get better and keep trying and come back stronger.

So while it felt good to achieve something at such a young age, and to be a part of something bigger, it also kept me grounded because I knew I had to get much better and I still had a long way to go. While my journey was cut short as I decided to focus more on my education, I do still play cricket in Bangkok; it’ll always be my first love.

Your cycling journey started with terrible traffic! Tell us about that, and how you realised that you’d found your passion in cycling, which you’ve called a sport that is “you against you.”

When I was working in Bangalore, the traffic there is even worse than Bangkok – worse than the traffic you get outside of EmSphere these days! [Laughs] For me, sitting in traffic was a waste of time, and I was also at that stage in life where I had just started to make some money and I ended up partying a lot and staying up late, and I wanted to get out of that rut. Cycling wasn’t new to me, as I used to cycle as a kid, but I hadn’t done it on the road for a longer period of time. One random day, I went to a Decathlon (the sports outlet), and that’s when I decided to buy a bike and cycle to work.

I realised that I was good at it, and getting better every day. I was able to ride faster and longer, and I’d do longer rides with groups over the weekends to learn more about the sport. And that’s when I came across the Aidtya Mehta Foundation in
Hyderabad. They support a lot of para bodies and differently-abled para-military forces, central reserve forces, and civilians who have lost their limbs or eyesight. They assist them with taking up a sport and getting a second chapter in life, giving
them training and guidance to compete to a certain level, and providing them with equipment.

So I got in touch, and they asked me to come over for a ride that they were doing from Manali in the North of India, to Khardung La, the peak part of the Himalayas; the highest motorable road in the world. It was over nine days covering 550km
with incredible views that you wouldn’t see anywhere else in the world. I put myself through this Litmus test to see if I wanted to get more involved in the sport and invest my blood, sweat, money, and time into it. It was life changing. I decided that I wanted to keep pushing forward with this sport – there is no reverse gear on a cycle; you have to keep moving forward.

I then signed up for longer rides, which were very maddening – I probably won’t do them anymore! I did 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km rides in a day just to be absolutely sure that I was capable of this, and that I could compete on an international level. And that’s when I started training professionally to compete. Aditya Mehta from the foundation reached out to me, and told me there was a race in Bahrain for the Asian Championships. I got selected, and won a silver medal, and that’s when my journey really kicked off.

One of your life philosophies is, “we all need a spark of madness which makes us unique.” Can you share more about how this philosophy has helped you tackle the challenges you’ve faced?

Many of us go through similar education, training, and childhoods; we consume similar content, and yet we are all still unique. The journey of life is all about finding who you are and finding out how you’re different from others. There is something that you’re made for, and something that you have to bring to life for others to benefit as well.

I did many things to find my unique spark. I danced, played cricket, swam – but the thing that stuck the most with me was cycling. That’s where I found my spark; where I’m different and better, and I knew I had to hone my skills there to give back to the community. I wanted to put myself out there in front of people and tell them, “If I can do this, so can you; you can find your own spark in your life. You’re the only one who can amplify your own uniqueness. No one else can do it for you.”

Your other motto, “be friends with discomfort,” is quite powerful. How did you apply this mindset when dealing with coming last at the Asian Para Games?

If it was easy, everyone would do it. And if everyone’s doing it, then you’re not unique. You have to do things which are not comfortable – where others are saying, “how can you do this? You’re so mad!” Discomfort is something that you need to
be okay with in order to grow – for example, to build muscle, you need to pick up more weights. Discomfort always helps you grow – it’s a friend, but it looks like a dangerous devilish person that you might be scared of at first. But that’s a façade. If you befriend discomfort, you’ll grow mentally and physically in leaps and bounds.

I still don’t count myself as a winner as I haven’t yet won a gold. I’ve won three silver medals, so I’m the first loser. My journey is still on, and the discomfort is still there with me. It doesn’t let you be complacent with things – when you win, you might think you’re done. But when you’re the first loser, you know you’re not done yet.

One of the ways that you’ve befriended discomfort is switching from a career in finance to sales to support your athletic endeavours. What were the biggest challenges in making this transition?

I thought that once I started representing the country, and once I won my first silver, brand deals would start flowing in, and I’d get a lot of money. I got zero cents. [Laughs] That’s when I realised that money doesn’t come that quickly, and
success doesn’t follow any kind of victory that quickly. I soon realised that it’s a dog eat dog world, and there’s no free lunch. On the finance side of the world, as a Professional Financial Analyst, my interest was in the stock markets, but I was in a different kind of role. I was more in corporate finance and budgeting, where the money wasn’t great. I knew that I wanted to make money quickly to fuel this journey of mine, and I didn’t want to ask my parents for money, which was something I was completely against.

I was told at the company that I was working at that there was an opening in Sales. While I hadn’t done sales in my life, I realised that naturally every human is a seller – we sell ourselves to friends, to people, to get them to accept us. So how difficult could it be to sell a product? I just had to push myself in that spot of discomfort, which I was used to. Once again, you need to be okay with discomfort to learn new things. I burned the midnight oil, improved on my skills and methods, including how to make a sales pitch to clients, and more. And through Sales, I knew that I could be dependent on myself to make more money to fuel my passion.

How do you balance both a full-time job and a professional sports career?

It is a challenge, I can tell you! It comes at a socialising cost – I can’t socialise late at night, or go out partying in Sukhumvit. I have to wake up at 4.30am and train and ride until 8.30am. By 9.30am I’m at work until 6.30pm. And then whatever remaining time in the day, I spend reading, spending time with my wife, and whatever little socialising I can so that I can in bed by 10.30pm at the latest. Discipline is needed, and it’s hard at times, but nothing good in life comes easy. And it’ll have good returns – at the worst case scenario, I’ll have a great physique and a healthy lifestyle! The best case scenario, I’ll be a top professional athlete in prime shape and form, which will enable me to compete and win at international levels.

Winning the silver medal in Uzbekistan, and losing by only six seconds, was a tremendous achievement. How did this near-victory spur you even further in your future goals, and what does your advice of, “be the wolf that always looks for the next feast of success” mean to you personally?

Uzbekistan was after my defeat at the Asian Para Games where I ended up last. That was my fuel to keep getting better, and in Uzbekistan I again came second, but only lost by six seconds. Coming six seconds to the goal, I knew I was getting better and in a week’s time, I was back on my bike training again, for what was supposed to be the World Championships. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and everything was shut down for a while.

By the time competitions had resumed, I was already in the process of moving to Bangkok, and so I was dealing with the transition at that time. However, the wolf that you talk about was still hungry. I always wanted to get back into cycling, but I had to find the right timing and schedule, and resume my previous lifestyle. It was only earlier this year, in March, that I found out about the Asian Championships in Kazakhstan, which were held in June. Thus, I went back to competing at an
international level after a five year break. I had only 1.5 months to prepare myself, and to get to a competitive stage from absolutely doing nothing – aside from drinking beer all day [laughs]. 1.5 months of dedication and discipline brought me
back to a level where I could compete for the country again. After five years of no competition, I still came fifth. It’s not that great, but I was happy with the decent positioning. I knew that if I could get my form back in a month, if I put in a whole
year, there’s nothing stopping me from winning. The wolf is still hungry, I’m still climbing, and I’m still feeling challenged.

Looking back on your incredible achievements, while also looking forward to your goals for the future, such as winning Gold for India; what would you say are the main bulwarks of your success?

I would first like to thank my parents for being the cornerstone of my successful journey. They have always supported me in any way that was needed, and I am grateful for that.

The Aditya Mehta Foundation, of which I am a member, assisted me in my early years by offering opportunities, guidance, and equipment. My coach for six years – The Kansaltant, has helped me grow in this journey and kept pushing me even on my low days. The two companies I have worked for, InMobi and AppsFlyer, were very supportive, and I feel privileged to have been a part of them.

After getting married, my wife has been the biggest source of encouragement in this renewed journey to win the gold. She has never watched me compete, win, or step up to the podium, so this time, I want to do it for her. Of course, a large number of my family and close friends have always supported me and wished me luck in winning. I’m winning for them, too.



Related Articles