Drawing with GPS: How a wheelchair helped set a world record

It’s not often that Guinness World Records reaches out to someone to say, “We think you belong in our book.”

It’s not about disability or wheelchairs alone, Varghese says. ‘Anyone can receive news for which they are not prepared.’ What does one do next? He wants his life to be proof that the answer can be: Almost anything.

In December 2021, Hassan Ibrahim, a senior public relations manager for MENA (the Middle-East and North Africa region) reached out to wheelchair-bound banking executive Sujith Varghese to say just that.

He’d been following the latter’s social-media accounts, seeing the 31-year-old weightlift and box, skydive and scuba-dive, participate in rap battles and deliver a TEDx speech.

The latent message, in each post, reflects Varghese’s core belief: A wheelchair can go down almost any road.

It was a message that Ibrahim found inspiring. He texted the banker to ask: Could we look into you breaking a record? “I said yes, of course,” Varghese says.

He now holds a Guinness World Record for creating the largest GPS drawing made using a wheelchair. The suggestion came from Guinness too. In early 2022, Ibrahim sent Varghese a list of 10 possible records to set. They included pulling a car, wheeling on two wheels, doing a wheelchair flip. None of these sounded ideal. “They just weren’t things I could do,” Varghese says, laughing.

A second list suggested a largest GPS drawing. “I decided to make a drawing of the wheelchair logo.” Varghese started scanning routes that would let him trace this shape in Dubai, where he lives. “I had to form a big circle as part of the route. That was the toughest part,” he says. The next challenge was finding roads that jutted out from that circle at the right angles, in just the right places.”

Varghese took 1 hour and 25 minutes to complete the 8.71-km route. The pattern he picked: the wheelchair logo.

Varghese eventually used Downtown Dubai, “drawing” his pattern across a route that passed in front of the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall and wended its way across parts of the country’s financial centre. Before this, people had set records for largest GPS drawings made using a car or a bicycle; no one had done it propelled purely by their own might, in a manual wheelchair.

It took Varghese 1 hour and 25 minutes to complete the 8.71 km route, charting it via the MapMyRun app as approved by GWR. The record was certified in March.

A steeply sloping section near the Dubai Mall posed a particular challenge. So ahead of the record bid, Varghese says he added a little more endurance training to his workouts. “My body was very much in shape anyway. I was confident,” he says.

It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Dubai police and real-estate firm Emaar, which manages various properties in the area, he adds. “Both organisations loved the idea. I had multiple meetings with them. We visited the roads which they would have to block, one by one, on the day. When the event day arrived, I was shocked to see 20 cars at the start-point. Eighteen of them were Dubai police cars, one was an ambulance and another was for press coverage. They followed me in a relay, eight cars at any given time, to ensure my safety and help me throughout.”

Born in Dubai, Varghese was studying at a Bengaluru college when a motorcycle accident left him paralysed from the waist down, in 2013. He was 20. He went through phases of grief that he describes as denial, anger, rejection, fear and sadness.

He remembers doctors listing the things he “couldn’t” do; telling him he wouldn’t be able to live a normal life. “They didn’t tell me what I still could do. The verdict of people around me as well, including friends and loved ones, was all just negative.”

He responded with a decision that was as brave as it was simple: He would pursue every goal he had before the accident, and let his body and mind tell him what was possible. “I pushed myself and started going to the gym and from then on there was no stopping me,” he says.

He is now a fitness influencer and ambassador for the annual Dubai Fitness Challenge, a 30-day programme launched by crown prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2017.

It’s not about disability or wheelchairs alone, Varghese says. “Anyone can receive news for which they are not prepared.” How does one cope then? What does one do next? He wants his life to be proof that the answer can be: Almost anything.

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