One Ashwini, many roles

As OLYMPIAN athlete, Tollywood actress, social worker and educationist, Ashwini Nachappa has played the game of life with great versatility, writes AVINASH NAIR.

The glamour girl of Indian athletics has donned many roles. As Olympian athlete, Tollywood actress, social worker and educationist, Ashwini Nachappa has played the game of life with great versatility. The Bangalore-based former athlete is now concentrating on her institution, the Karumbhaiah's Academy of Learning and Sports at Gonnikoppa, a small town in Coorg in Karnataka. She is also a trustee of the NGO called Parikrama, which does work to improve the lot of slum children and orphaned young ones. "I miss Parikrama a great deal and once the Academy is on a firm footing, I wish to return to my stint with the NGO, where we reach out to the poorest of the poor," said Ashwini, now in her late 30s.

When young Ashwini, along with her mother and sister Pushpa, made the move from Kolkata to Bangalore, the family picked up a place opposite where Sree Kanteerava Stadium is currently located.

"We moved to Bangalore in pursuit of education. And because the Sree Kanteerava Stadium was nearby, we were herded to the tracks every evening after school. The late Mohinder Singh Gill was there and would offer sweets for every round we jogged and basically it was the lure of every extra sweet that prodded Pushpa and me. There has been no looking back since. Both of us became champions in our respective age groups (Pushpa was almost two years older) and the medals and trophies took over from sweets," said Ashwini.

There were quite a few glorious moments in her early athletics career. "The first great moment was in the first All India Open Nationals when I won the first gold for the state and the then chief minister Gundu Rao presented me a cash award of Rs 1000. In the Mangalore Nationals, Anand Shetty and I emerged the `fastest man and woman' and I ran the 400 metres for the very first time finishing behind P.T. Usha, Shiny Wilson, Vandana Shanbhag and Valsamma." The selection to the 1988 Olympic trials in Bangalore and being part of the Indian team to Seoul for the mega event was Ashwini's biggest moment. "It is any sportsperson's dream to be a part of the nation's Olympic team," said Ashwini. The Arjuna Award that she received in June, 1990, was yet another memorable occasion.

Ashwini's twin wins over `Payyoli Express' P. T. Usha catapulted the Coorgi girl to a household name in India. "The first time, at the Open Nationals in New Delhi '91, when I pipped her to the gold in the 400 metres, every one called it a fluke. But, I came back strongly two weeks later in an international invitation permit meet, also in New Delhi, and finished behind a Russian, pushing Usha to the third spot. The critics were silenced for good."

Obviously, Ashwini loves proving her critics wrong. "When I moved to celluloid and had a good time, the critics said I was finished and that it would be impossible for me to comeback to top-flight athletics. But once again I proved them wrong when I won four gold medals — 100m, 200m, 400m and the 4x100m relay — at the Calcutta Nationals in early '92."

Unluckily for Ashwini, an injury forced her out of the trials for the Barcelona Olympics and she opted to quit while on top. Her short career in films also gave her a few memorable moments. "Though I did just five films, it was a wonderful experience. I even played a cop in Inspector Ashwini. The award for the Best Newcomer from the AP Government and the Tamil Cine Film Critics award were encouraging."

Ashwini's career in top-flight athletics gave her a few heartbreaks as well. "There is nothing to beat the one that came at the relay trials during the Seoul Olympics," said Ashwini. "We were five — Shiny, the two Vandanas, Rao and Shanbagh, Mercy Kuttan and myself — competing for the places. There were many pushing Usha's case and on the day before the event we were called for one last trial. But neither Usha nor her coach O. M. Nambiar turned up which only resulted in the bigwigs calling for another trial in the evening. Vandana Rao, Shanbagh and myself skipped the trial and went to watch our hockey team in action. Subsequently, Mercy Kuttan and I were relegated to the reserves, and Usha was brought in. Our relay team went out in the very first round."

What would have been her life had it not been for athletics? "I was just an average student and I took up a job with the Vijaya Bank, on sports quota, the day after my Second Pre-University exams. This closed the door on my other career options like working as an air-hostess," said Ashwini, who resigned from her post as Sports Officer of Vijaya Bank so that she could devote more time to her work in Parikrama.

Ashwini established her own institution, Karumbhaiah`s Academy, in June 2004. "I will shortly be adding five disciplines — athletics, hockey, swimming, tennis and badminton — to the sports academy," said Ashwini. "In only the second year we have about 1016 students, that too till the seventh standard, and we are surely expecting more admissions in the coming years."

The Academy is named after her husband, Datta Karumbhaiah, a former junior India hockey player, now engrossed in his business and the institution. Ashwini has two daughters and both are into sports. "For Anisha, 10, and Deepali, 7, it is badminton all the way," said a proud Ashwini. "Anisha has about seven under-11 titles this season and about 18 in all and Deepali is following in her elder sister's footsteps."

Ashwini's daughters train under coach Ganguly Prasad at the SAI South Centre. Whenever she is in town, it is a common sight to see the famous mother driving the daughters from their Koramangala residence to the Centre. It, certainly, is a bubbling, sporting family.