Photograph: Charudutt Chitrak
The Winning Way
They did the country proud at the Tokyo Paralympics. Not content to rest on their laurels, they are already gearing up for the 2024 Paris Paralympics. We present to you the para-athletes who have overcome the toughest challenges to keep shining bright.
Shooting Star: Avani Lekhara
She is India’s golden girl of the Tokyo Paralympics, bringing home two medals in rifle shooting. Para-shooter Avani Lekhara talks about how it all began, the nervousness leading up to the best moment of her life, and more
She took up shooting as a hobby at the age of 15; her father wanted her to take up a sport in order to shed some of her introversion and build up her confidence. Little did this Rajasthan native know then that, in the short span of four years, she would go on to become the country’s golden girl. The first Indian to win multiple medals in a single Paralympics competition, 19-year-old para-shooter Avani Lekhara won gold in the R-2 women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 event and bronze in the 50m Rifle 3 Position SH1. Currently the world no. 2 in Women’s 10m Air Rifle standing SH1, Lekhara has also been appointed an Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF) by the Government of Rajasthan.
The first match Lekhara played was a regional one; she competed with able-bodied athletes and she surprised everyone by winning the gold. “It was then that my interest in shooting deepened, and I started taking it seriously,” she says. She went on to win several national and international titles and, like every athlete, she, too, harboured the dream of representing the country at the highest level of the sport – the Paralympics in her case – and worked hard at giving 100 per cent to her prep.
Shortly before her dream was realised, on the range at the Tokyo Paralympics, Lekhara had thoughts chasing each other at the speed of light in her head. “I came seventh in my qualifications, and the finals were after a 45-minute break. There were a lot of emotions running through my head, but I had to try and control them and focus on one shot at a time rather than focusing on 24 shots or shooting a world record or winning a gold medal,” the young athlete recalls. She was “in the moment” and did the best she could, making it an equal world record and a Paralympic record. “It was surreal. I was so overwhelmed and, when I saw the Indian flag going up and heard the national anthem being played, it was the most special moment of my life.”
“There were a lot of emotions running through my head, but I had to try and control them and focus on one shot at a time rather than focusing on 24 shots or shooting a world record or winning a gold medal.” – Avani Lekhara
It was a car accident in 2012 that left Lekhara with complete paraplegia, leaving her wheelchair-bound. Today, she feels immense pride in having represented the country on that chair. Her abilities earned her the brand endorsement from Puma, and Lekhara is elated that para-sports are gaining the popularity they deserve. “I think this is the first time I have seen a wheelchair athlete in an endorsement and it feels great; people are watching more para-sports now.”
Lekhara credits her family for it all – she has their undying support. “My family is my backbone. They have supported me in my journey since childhood, my father always encouraging me and my mother accompanying me to every match,” she says.
Of course, the outcome of the games largely depends on her positive mindset as well, especially finding the strength to push through the difficult days. Her mantra is to think that, whatever the current situation, there will come a time when everything will be alright. “I say this phrase, ‘Ek din sab theek ho jayega’ [One day, everything will be alright] and just go with the flow.” This thought also enables her to focus more on the process rather than just the outcome. One to believe in living in the moment, she tends to mull less over the past and worry little about the future. But that is not to say that she does not prepare for it. Fresh off the success of Tokyo, she is already gearing up for the major upcoming tournaments in the coming years, including the Chateauroux 2022 WSPS World Cup in France, the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Para Games in China, and the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, for which the quotas will soon open. “I am hoping to win more medals for my country,” she smiles.
“I say this phrase, ‘Ek din sab theek ho jayega’ [One day, everything will be alright] and just go with the flow.” – Avani Lekhara
Living in the moment is something she not only practises, she also sends it forward as a message to aspiring young athletes. “Always believe in yourself, no matter what life throws at you. If life hits you, you should hit back even harder; just never stop believing in yourself,” are her words of wisdom that come from sheer experience.
The experience of becoming a shooter and acing the sport has brought a lot of light into Lekhara’s life, making her more confident. “When I started going out of India, representing my country on wheels, it was a big, big moment for me,” she concludes. May there be many more such moments.
Also read: A Smashing Success: Paralympian Bhavina Patel