Equestrian as a sport made its maiden appearance at the Asian Games in 1982 and saw host India dominating the competition with three gold medals. Since then, it had been a 41-year long wait for the elusive yellow medal that ended with a team dressage gold as a quartet of 20-plus year olds scripted history at the Tonglu Equestrian Centre here on Tuesday.
It was also the first-ever medal in dressage for India, the previous one coming in eventing. The four riders and their horses -- Sudipti Hajela (Chinski), Divyakriti Singh (Adrenalin Firfod), Hriday Cheda (Chemxpro Emerald) and Anush Agarwalla (Etro) – overcame a strong field that saw multiple-times winner South Korea being eliminated and defending champion Japan relegated to fourth.
With the sport embroiled in unending controversies back home for a long time now, it wasn’t surprising that the youngsters – all aged between 21-25 – were both emotional and ecstatic at the result. “It’s just unbelievable to have won gold here. It’s not been an easy journey for all of us to come here -- we have worked very hard for many years, stayed in Europe away from our families, missed every occasion and celebration back home, sacrificed a lot.
“When we finally realised that Team India was winning gold, it was very emotional, especially when the national anthem was playing, and then the silence and respect looking at our flag, there has not been a better feeling than that ever,” Agarwalla said, looking exhausted but proud.
“It has been a very long journey but everything came together with this team. None of us were able to believe it at that moment but we gave our 100 percent and then when you see the Tiranga going up, that is the biggest motivation,” Sudipti, the youngest at 21, chirped in.
But while the spotlight was on the riders, they themselves reminded that the humans were no good without their mounts. “Horses are the most important part of our sport, without them we are nothing. You may be the best rider in the world but without the right horse, you are helpless. And finding that one horse that is right for you is a tough task.
“It’s always a team, you and the horse. It’s very important to develop a bond with them – it’s a living being, you need to put in the effort, not like a car or cycle. “We have a very young partnership, I only got him in February but we just clicked but it takes time,” Anush explained.
It has not been an easy journey for any of them, based in Europe all alone with only their trainers and horses for company for years and spending enormous amounts of money to continue. “All of us shifted at a very young age and not just us, everyone -- our families and coaches – have sacrificed a lot, it’s been a lot of hard work for many years. Especially during the pandemic, everything came out of our own pockets and it was not easy.
“This is not an easy sport and finances are a big part of being successful. We need a lot more government support and something like the Madhya Pradesh State Equestrian Academy in every state to make it more accessible for everyone. But here, we have great camaraderie as a team and it feels really surreal, so a big Thank You to everyone who’s supported us all the way,” Divyakriti added.
As Anush said, “It’s the dream of every athlete. Not everyone can wake up and say, ‘we are gold medalists at the Asian Games’. So, all of it has been worth it.”
Other honourable mentions
India’s Bhavani Devi registered an impressive series of five wins in the morning to enter the knockout stages of women’s sabre individual fencing event before being knocked out in by local favourite Yaqi Shao in the quarterfinals. The Chinese, who has also been a training partner for Bhavani, won 15-7, racing to a 7-2 lead in the first period even before Bhavani could find her footing.
The Indian fencer questioned some of the early decisions from the referee, even challenging them early on, but admitted later that she let them affect her concentration, something she would work on in the coming competitions. “The one thing I have learnt is that I need to work on my speed and distance with different opponents and adjust accordingly,” Bhavani said.
Silver medalist at the Commonwealth Games last year, judoka Tulika Maan had to settle for the 5th place after losing her bronze medal bout to Mongolia’s Adiyasuren Amarsaikhan. Tulika, who lost in the quarterfinal, came back strongly to beat Jia Wen Tsai of Chinese Taipei in the repechage round to reach the medal bout but was unable to break past the Mongolian’s defences.
It was a largely passive contest with both judokas getting warned repeatedly to get on the offensive. In fact, neither judoka could score a point either in regulation time or the golden score period. While Adiyasuren received two warnings for false-attack and non-combativity, Tulika earned three to end the contest in favour of the Mongolian.
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