In India, the likes of Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, Mary Kom, and PV Sindhu, have inspired several young girls to embrace sports. From rural India too, many young sportswomen have represented the country on national and international platforms, and are chasing their dream to participate in Olympics. They may be a part of different states, but their goal to be ‘India’s pride’ unites them all.
Manu Bhaker, Airgun shooting
Haryana-based ace shooter Manu Bhaker was only 16, when she became the youngest Indian Gold medallist at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) in Mexico, in 2018.
She had tried her hand at Huyen langlon (a form of martial arts), boxing, tennis and skating, before taking the plunge into shooting. It was her father, a chief engineer in the Merchant Navy, who recognised this talent in Manu. In 2017, she bagged nine medals at the National Games and a Silver medal at the Asian Junior Championships.
Manu, now 18, also clinched Gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in the women’s 10m Air Pistol event, and later a record score at the Asian Games in the 25m pistol event.
Shivani Kataria, Swimming
Haryana’s Shivani Kataria (22) is only the third Indian swimmer ever to qualify for the Olympics. After a long hiatus of 12 years, India’s wildcard entry for the 2016 Rio Olympics was this champion, who participated in the women’s 200-m freestyle event. Although she didn’t score a medal, her performance was lauded on the global platform.
Shivani, who clinched a gold at the 2016 South Asian Games, started swimming at the age of six. Today, she is considered one of the fastest swimmers in India in the 200-m freestyle category. She was all set to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but her plans got shelved due to the pandemic.
Khushbir Kaur, Race Walk
Khushbir Kaur (27), who hails from a small village in Punjab, has suffered struggles ever since she was a child, but that has never deterred her to give up. In 2008, she ran a race barefoot at the Junior Nationals, because she couldn’t afford shoes. Six years later, she became the first Indian women to get a Silver medal in the 20km Race Walk at the Asian Games (2014).
It was her performance at the 2012 Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Sri Lanka that had catapulted her into the limelight. Ever since, Khushbir - now an Arjuna Awardee - has walked her way to success by grabbing several medals at national and international championships.
Sarjubala Devi, Boxing
Referred to as the ‘next Mary Kom’, Sarjubala Devi (27) from Manipur represented India at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Sarjubala was only 10, when she decided to visit the Kongba Boxing Academy, and that is what piqued her interest in the sport. In 2011, when she clinched a gold at the AIBA Youth Women’s World Championship in Turkey, followed by another national champion title that year. Her feats drew the attention of Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit foundation which has been supporting her ever since.
Though she couldn’t win a medal at the Rio Olympics and 2018 Commonwealth Games, she bounced back with Gold and the Best Boxer award at the nationals last year.
Varsha Sanjeev, Snooker
Women cueists are not often heard of, but 22-year-old Varsha Sanjeev has shattered all the stereotypes to earn the title of the National Snooker Champion. She beat senior players Amee Kamani and Vidya Pillai, to win this much-coveted title.
The sport has had no woman flagbearer in India, but Varsha believes that the landscape is beginning to change, and the number of competitors are finally growing. She herself ventured into the sport, when she saw renowned snooker player Pankaj Advani play in her hometown, Bengaluru.
Varsha has also clinched other titles, including a bronze in the 2016 World U-21 Championship.
Elavenil Valarivan, Air Rifle
Ahmedabad girl Elavenil Valarivan (21) won the world with a Gold medal at her maiden ISSF World Cup, in 2018, and followed it up with the leading title at the World Cup Finals as well. Thereafter, she clinched a silver in the World University Games 2019, and a gold at the World Junior World Cup Suhi 2019.
The young champion, who is being coached by the former Olympic medallist Gagan Narang, was prepping up for the Olympics, but the pandemic has forced her to calibrate her plans.
(Edited by Athira Nair)