A lack of infrastructure, funding and training often make it hard for a person to be a full-time athlete in India. It becomes an even more challenging task when that person is a woman faced with an uncooperative system and social barriers. In the face of these challenges, here are five women who not only succeeded but have continued to impress and inspire with their grit, determination and indomitable spirit.
The nation waited with bated breath for its first medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, a wait that finally ended in the early hours of the morning when Sakshi Malik won bronze in the women’s freestyle wrestling event. Her win catapulted into stardom, making her a household name as only the fourth female athlete from India to win a medal at the Olympics. Sakshi’s journey however, was not always one of success. She was born in the village of Mokhra, Haryana, where the child sex ratio was heavily skewed towards boys. At 11, her decision to train in wresting, encountered resistance from the locals for whom it was a boy’s sport. Her coach stood up for her though, and she trained with boys in the local akhara. By 18, she was winning competitions at the junior-level and her international career truly took off when she took home gold at the Dave Schultz Memorial International wrestling tournament in 2014. She continued to rise and this year was her crowning moment as she took home an Olympic medal in dramatic style.
World No. 1 on the doubles circuit for two consecutive years, Sania Mirza has had another outrageously successful year on the tennis courts. The year began with her clinching a third Grand Slam title, partnered by Martina Hingis. The Indian-Swiss duo continued to win, extending their winning streak to 41 matches before it came to a sudden end in the Qatar Open. In August, ‘Santina’ decided to part ways and Sania would go on win 8 titles with three different partners in 2016. She has held the No. 1 for a period of 81 weeks, a feat only three tennis greats have bettered so far. The only near miss for her was a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics as she and Rohan Bopanna bowed out in the mixed doubles semi-finals.
With a father who was a national shooter and an uncle who is a professional gunsmith, it was no wonder Heena Sidhu took to shooting herself. She was a natural at the sport, going on to win titles, medals and create a string of firsts, amongst them, the first Indian to become the World No. 1 pistol shooter. Early in the year, Heena was able to secure an Olympic quota for the country for Rio 2016 by claiming gold at the Asia Olympic qualifiers for shooting in women's 10-m air pistol. While she was unable to enter the finals of both the events that she qualified for, it was still a landmark achievement for India's top pistol shooter. Recently, the two-time Olympian stood up for her belief that sport is equal by withdrawing from the Asian Airgun championship in Iran due to their compulsory hijab rule. She stated, “Sport is an exhibition of sheer human effort performance. Our ability to dig deep for Strength, will power and determination," and that people should come to compete together without any biases.
Born with flat feet, Dipa was told that she could never become a gymnast. Her coach, the only one who she has had for the past 17 years, saw her extraordinary talent though and together, they worked hard to fix it. Today, Dipa is India's first female gymnast to qualify for the Olympics. Her tale is one full of obstacles that she has overcome with all the grace and determination befitting a gymnast. Standing at just 4' 11'', this pint-sized gymnast was born in Tripura and did not let the lack of facilities or the occasional flooding of her training ground stop her. Despite not receiving any funds or recognition, she persevered to go on and win the Junior National Championships in 2007. Since then, she has won 77 medals, including 67 golds. Most courageous of all, she has made a name for herself by becoming only the fifth person ever to land the incredibly dangerous Produnova vault. Her courage and will-power stand out and make her an inspiration for all those who face obstacles on their way to their goal.
The past year has been an unforgettable one for Pusarla Venkata Sindhu. Her rapid rise to the top culminated in a fairy-tale journey in Rio 2016, rising from her humble beginnings to beat the best players in the world. Her final match in the Olympics against Carolina Marin was a battle for the ages, with a glorious Sindhu putting up a hard fight before finally succumbing to the World No. 1. Even in her moment of defeat, she maintained her grace and dignity as she claimed her silver medal. She has continued to shine after her Olympic appearance, finally breaking past the Top 10 to a career high rank of No. 7.