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Rifle Shooting

A chat with Avani Lekhara - the first Indian woman to bag a gold at the Tokyo Paralympics

The 20-year old talks about meeting Abhinav Bindra, modelling for PUMA and her love for K-dramas

Saionee Chakraborty | Published 17.03.22, 06:04 AM
At just 20, Avani has made history by bagging a gold in rifle shooting at the Tokyo Paralympics

At just 20, Avani has made history by bagging a gold in rifle shooting at the Tokyo Paralympics

Rifle shooting champion Avani Lekhara may have made history by bagging a gold (R2 — women’s 10m air rifle standing SH1) at the Tokyo Paralympics, in August, the first Indian woman to do so, but the thing that marvels you about the 20-year-old is how down to earth she is. The straight-talking yet polite PUMA athlete who also has a bronze (R8 — women’s 50m rifle 3 positions SH1) from Tokyo, joined The Telegraph for a Zoom call recently to chat about the brand’s Women’s Day initiative at inclusivity by ‘adding diverse mannequins at its stores across the country’. Avani too has a special ‘tribute mannequin’. All for comfort food, Avani loves the dal-chawal her mother makes and is lapping up Korean dramas at the moment. In this chat, Avani tells us about her journey so far and the message she would like to spread when it comes to people with disability.

How has life changed in the last six months?

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I would say it’s a total change. It was my first Paralympic Games and I was both super nervous and excited at the same time. When I won and came back to India, the reaction of all the Indians, wishes and the support that I have received was super amazing. Now people are knowing more about Para sports. Wherever I go, they say they are inspired by me. The motivation really helps.
I had a long break after the Paralympics. Then when I started training again, I don’t think much has changed in my training. It’s just motivated me to perform for the country and to win medals for my country in future.

What have been your takeaways apart from the medals and accolades? What do you think this has done for your sports and Para athletes in India, especially women?

I feel this was the first time an Indian woman won a gold medal at the Paralympics. That said a lot that women can also win a medal and they are also working equally hard and putting in equal effort, with the same dedication that men do. Also the Paralympians came back with the highest medal haul in Paralympics for India (19 medals), from Tokyo and that has motivated a lot of people with disabilities, who think that life is over and they are not worthy or deserving of the love and support in doing anything. That changed a lot. Now, I see a lot of new Para athletes, women with disabilities, joining sports. It feels good to see that even if one person is inspired by it, it feels like a real success to me.

What are the myths surrounding people with disability?

There are lots. The first thing is we don’t need sympathy. This is not the end of life and when we go out there, we don’t always need your help. We are capable. I see a lot of people with disabilities do so much in their careers. We need an inclusive environment to work and a pat in the back, saying ‘You did it! And we are there to support you.’

Paralympians came back with the highest medal haul in Paralympics for India (19 medals), from Tokyo and that has motivated a lot of people with disabilities, who think that life is over and they are not worthy or deserving of the love and support in doing anything. That changed a lot. Now, I see a lot of new Para athletes, women with disabilities, joining sports. It feels good to see that even if one person is inspired by it, it feels like a real success to me.

The mind can be your biggest enemy or best friend. What has been your process like of reaching this stage of mental strength in your life?

It doesn’t happen in a day. If I say that I don’t miss my past life, I would definitely be lying. In February I completed 10 years (of being caught in a road accident that left her with a spinal cord injury) and at that time I never thought that in 10 years, I would win a gold medal for my country and I would represent a community with disability. It was a long journey. In the beginning, I couldn’t even imagine sitting. It felt like a nightmare and as if my life had ended. My parents were my biggest support system, my mom especially. It is not easy for a mom to see her child go from running and dancing one minute to a wheelchair the next. The courage she showed, helping me with all the things, travelling with me to competitions... she was always there.

I had multiple inspirations. When I started, I saw a lot of Para athletes from India who were doing well. I read Abhinav Bindra sir’s autobiography (A Shot at History). I also wanted to become a gold medallist from India. The only thing that kept me going was I had to first accept it and then only I can go ahead in a productive direction. I had to accept that this is my body and this is how I am now and what can I do with my life and how can I be a better version of myself every day.

What attracted you to shooting?

I started it as a hobby. I didn’t think it would be a career or a profession for me at that time. My father wanted me to try some sport and the shooting range was beside my house and I went there to try a couple of shots. They were pretty decent. They were in the black circle of the target (smiles), at the first go. My coach said I could try it. I liked rifles more than pistols. Holding a rifle felt like it’s my thing.

Have you tried any other sport?

I tried archery before shooting... and swimming. The latter was just for fun, but shooting is what I tried with full focus.

Have you met Abhinav Bindra?

I first met him in 2017 at an award ceremony. He congratulated me and we had a talk and wished me the best. That was my first time meeting my inspiration and I don’t remember much because I was so much in the zone. (Laughs)

Which other sport do you follow?

Like every other Indian, I also watch a lot of cricket. Virat Kohli is probably my favourite (laughs).

Tell us how it was modelling for PUMA...

(Laughs) This was my first time in a proper model mode. Ten years back, I didn’t like clicking pictures that much after my accident. That’s why I don’t have that many pictures too. The only pictures I have are of me crying or hiding my face. Coming from that till here, I would have never imagined myself in this position today, but it is absolutely incredible to see PUMA giving me and other athletes a chance to make India more inclusive and it is also breaking stereotypes like people with disabilities can’t do modelling....

And, you have your own mannequin too...

I was shook for some time! I am thankful to PUMA India because you don’t see mannequins on wheelchairs at all and this is the first time they are taking this step towards inclusivity and celebrating women of all types and empowering them and recognising their hard work and achievements.

Tell us about your fitness routine...  

It’s been 10 years of my back surgery and I have been experiencing a lot of back pain, even before the Paralympic Games. So, I am working a lot on my back strength and core strength. I am doing mostly balancing exercises because in shooting, balance is important. I do upper body exercises and also to keep my legs fit, I do passive training and stand sometimes with the help of walkers.

You are just 20. Let’s talk about your other loves. Do you like make-up?

I like make-up, but I feel I have two left hands! (Laughs) I love lipsticks and trying out new shades and blush.

What is first love when it comes to clothing?

You are asking someone who is at the shooting range half the day! On a daily basis, I like comfortable and trendy clothing. I also like ethnicwear.

What is time off for you?

I like watching web series and recently I have been into Korean dramas a lot... All of Us Are Dead. Sci-fi is probably my favourite.

How do you want to use this platform that you have, to create more awareness and encourage?

I want to say that no matter what has happened to you now, there will be better days in the future. If you accept yourself, and work hard, there will be a day when your dreams will come true. Success comes to different people at different times but you should keep progressing. Have faith.

The only thing that kept me going was I had to first accept it and then only I can go ahead in a productive direction. I had to accept that this is my body and this is how I am now and what can I do with my life and how can I be a better version of myself everyday

Last updated on 17.03.22, 10:51 AM
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