India has come a long way at the Paralympics, since its debut in 1968 with only two female participants. In the Tokyo Paralympics 2020, scheduled to commence on 24th August 2021, 54 para-athletes will represent India. With 14 female participants across nine categories, this is India’s largest contingent for the game after the Rio Paralympics of 2016.
Indian Para Rifle Shooter Avani Lekhara is one of the youngest participants who has made the cut for the Tokyo Paralympics this year. Her journey has been about overcoming hurdles and working insistently towards her dream. Currently ranked fifth in the women’s 10m air rifle standing SH1, the 20-year-old star athlete from Jaipur won a historic gold for the country and is the first Indian woman to secure a gold medal at the paralympics.
Shooting for the stars: A journey of grit and determination
Avani Lekhara was 10 years old when she met with a car accident which left her with a spinal cord injury. Nine years since the incident, needless to say, her life has changed drastically. But it hasn’t been a smooth sail for this young athlete. Succumbing to massive physical injuries took a toll on her physical and mental health.
After the mishap, she has been bound to a wheelchair. She struggled and failed to get a school admission initially after the accident, and consequently had to be homeschooled for two years. In an interview with Vogue India, she says, “I was very angry with my condition and barely spoke to anyone.” Eventually, she got admission to the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
She says that at times she wished she would wake up and everything would be all right. Coming to terms with her grief was not easy but she believed that acceptance is the key to her healing. Despite her physical and mental trauma, Avani Lekhara never stopped dreaming big in life; be it the ambition of striking gold for the country or becoming a judge. She is currently pursuing her B. A LLB degree in Law from the University of Rajasthan.
Over the years, Avani’s father has become her pillar of strength and support. Avani speaks affectionately about how her father always wished for her to go out, make friends and explore the world. He did not want her physical situation to become a barrier to her free will.
Visiting a shooting range with her father during a summer vacation opened up a new horizon for her to explore. Prior to that, her father introduced Avani to archery as well. She recalls that she “felt very connected towards shooting” since the first time she held a rifle. Thus, began her journey of pursuing the sport and today she is one of the country’s youngest, most remarkable para shooters.
All set for the paralympic games
Avani’s first shooting experience at the range was no doubt a boost to her confidence. However, she was highly sceptical of turning this hobby into a profession. A gift from her father, the autobiography of Abhinav Bindra titled A Shot At History, changed her perspective entirely.
The book not only opened her up to the journey of India’s star Olympian shooter, his struggles and success, but also brought her closer to the sport. This experience prompted her to take a big leap of faith. Slowly, with practice, determination and persistence, she gained mastery over shooting.
Avani Lekhara’s accomplishments in the last few years is a true testimony of her diligence. From bagging a gold at the KV Nationals to bagging three medals at the national championship in 2016, Avani slowly emerged as a promising sportswoman in the country. Her shooting, she mentions, has helped her focus on her studies as well.
In 2017, with her international debut at the Para Shooting World Cup in Al Ain, Avani Lekhara succeeded in winning a silver medal for India. This was the breakthrough of her sports career. Despite stiff competition from international players, Avani played with determination and confidence.
By bagging another silver at the World Cup earlier this year, this incredible athlete has undoubtedly made her presence felt in the world of sports.
The Paralympics was postponed as a result of the pandemic, and Avani says that it affected her training as well. Contesting against senior para-athletes requires consistent and rigorous training. However, with the numerous Covid induced lockdowns, Avani initially had to rely on dry firing and wall holding at her home.
The lack of equipment and a shooting range, coupled with having no option for live firing in the home setting hindered her practice sessions. Besides, the pandemic also affected her physiotherapy sessions which are crucial to her health.
In an interview, Avani says, “I was disappointed for a while when the Paralympics got cancelled last year due to Covid-19 but then I decided to look at the bright side- I had one more year to practice.” This mind frame reflects her optimism and her ability to look for the silver lining in every situation.
Avani Lekhara will be competing in four events at the Tokyo Paralympics 2021: Women’s R2 – 10m air rifle SH1, Women’s R8 – 50m rifle 3 positions SH1, Mixed R3 – 10m air rifle prone SH1 and Mixed R6 – 50m rifle prone SH1.
With a gold medal to her credit in the Women’s R2 – 10m air rifle SH1, the 19-year-old shooting prodigy is all set to face tight competition, one of them being the world No. 1 Ukranian sharp shooter Iryna Shchetnik, her toughest opponent.
In a society that isolates people with disabilities, the indomitable spirit and journey of a young female para-athlete like Avani Lekhara is an inspiration.
Featured Image Source: The Bridge