World No. 1 who needs no practice - Untrained Indian becomes first woman in free-fall para-jump over South Pole

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By SAMYABRATA RAY GOSWAMI in Mumbai
  • Published 21.12.06
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Mumbai, Dec. 21: Sheetal Mahajan doesn’t just break world records — she breaks them at first try, virtually untrained.

On December 15, the 24-year-old daughter of a Tata Motors factory worker in Pune became the world’s first woman to do a free-fall para-jump over the South Pole.

All she needed for the 12,000-foot plunge from an aeroplane, in minus 38 degrees, was three to four days’ training with the Navy.

She didn’t even need that when she did the North Pole on April 18, 2004, setting an Indian record. It was her first dive out of a plane.

“She had never seen a parachute, never been in an aeroplane,” said mother Mamta in Delhi, where Sheetal arrives tomorrow morning. “We aren’t well-off; but she wanted to achieve something that’s a first for an Indian.”

The idea came when a friend’s brother, Captain Kamal Singh Oberoi, a parachute instructor at Pune’s National Defence Academy, travelled to the North Pole for sky-diving.

“He told her no woman had ever done a free-fall para-jump over the South Pole; but to do that she must try the North Pole first,” Sheetal’s brother Harshal said.

“It sounded weird — a simple, middle-class girl, who had always walked to school, wanted to para-jump to be world famous! No one from our family had ever been in sports…. I thought she was insane. But her steadfastness convinced me,” said her 54-year-old father, Kamlakar Mahajan, who mortgaged his village land to part-fund the North Pole trip.

Sheetal was a second-year BSc student of geology at Pune’s Fergusson College when she made that jump, from about 230 feet. But she wanted more.

“Right after her return, she began working on mission South Pole,” Kamlakar said.

Tata Motors, which along with a host of small sponsors had funded the Arctic trip, came forward again. The Russian government had organised the northern adventure, but this time the involvement of a US-based private adventure tour company raised the cost to Rs 1.10 crore.

“We had to mortgage our house,” Mamta said.

Sheetal approached the navy, which has India’s only team of trained sky-divers, for instructors — and was turned down.

“She sought an appointment with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who asked the navy to help her. She did it alone — none of us in the family knew anybody significant,” Kamlakar said.

This being her first jump from such a height, her two navy instructors held her on either side as she exited the aircraft and let go only after she reached the correct position.

There will be felicitations aplenty for the world-beater after she arrives in the country. But don’t expect her to lecture children on how practice makes perfect.