For people living with disabilities in India, a major point of debate and legislation for decades has been access — to infrastructure, services, and assistance. Against this background, it is quite remarkable that Avani Lekhara, India’s first female Paralympic gold medallist, was introduced to this sport thanks to this very thing — access. “I started shooting in 2015. The sport happened to me quite by chance,” Lekhara tells Sportstar, while on the road from Jaipur to New Delhi for the national camp.
“I was in class nine, and it was our summer vacation. I tried out a number of sports, like archery and swimming. The (Jagatpura) shooting range is close to where I live in Jaipur, so it was the easiest option to pick,” she says. Eight years later, she has two Paralympic medals, a number of World Cup medals, a world no. 1 ranking, and a world record to her name — things she did not even dream of after an accident in 2012 left her paralysed from the waist down. And now, she is one of the brightest talents from India in para shooting.
“The first time I went to the range, I got 10–20 shots in the black circle. The coach there then suggested I try the sport full time. As I progressed from one tier of competition to the next, I started loving the sport. Shooting made me feel confident and happy. That range was like home. I felt like I belonged there,” Avani remembers. But how hard can it be to shoot while sitting in a wheelchair? Very, especially when you’re doing it for hours, Avani learned. “I am paraplegic. I don’t have sensation, motor power, or balance from the waist down. It does get hard trying to position a 5- to 6-kilogramme rifle on the body for up to three and a half hours,” Avani explains.
“It takes a lot of physical strengthening for the upper body. You need to do a lot of cardio because in shooting, we shoot in between breaths, and that needs control. Usually, people run or do treadmill work. But in my case, I can’t do any of that, so it took a lot of time to customise a workout for me,” she says. A massive part of Avani’s process is between the ears. “After you reach a certain level, 70–80 per cent of the task is purely a thing of the mind. So, I do a lot of yoga, pranayam, and meditation with my trainer,” she says.
This handles composure, but the real beast is nerves. “You can’t control everything. When you’re at a stage where there’s so much pressure and expectation from you, you can’t cave in and forget the purpose behind why you are where you are. I try to plan for everything that can go wrong and what I can do to counter it,” she explains.
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“For Tokyo, I made an hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute schedule so that I knew at what time I had to do which activity and made provisions for what could go wrong. But things I didn’t plan for still went wrong, and I had to control my anxiety. It taught me that there is always a solution,” she says.
It helps that Avani finds herself in the safe embrace of her family at all times. She credits her parents, Shweta (who travels everywhere with her), Praveen, and younger brother Arnav for keeping her grounded. “I am so grateful that everyone around me is super honest, and they’re always there to be upfront with me. My parents, especially, keep me grounded. My brother too; you know how siblings are. They easily show me my place and keep me rooted. Even if I try to wave the Paralympic medals around, they say, okay, that’s done. What next? So yeah, this won’t fly there,” Avani says with a chuckle.
Don’t let her cherubic face fool you. Circumstances and, in many ways, her sport have made Avani wise beyond her years. “I belong to a community of people with disabilities. They look up to me. Even if I manage to inspire one person and motivate them to live their life fully and not just restrict themselves to their disability, it would be a big success,” Avani says. The 21-year-old does see the gap between what’s available to an elite athlete and what trickles down to regular people, calling this something the country needs to address. “I am seeing development in the stadiums and ranges. They are slowly becoming wheelchair-friendly and have wheelchair-accessible washrooms. But this is not translating into the lives of regular people. People with disabilities have trouble with stairs and vehicular transportation. Not all schools are wheelchair-accessible. These are big areas where we have not done enough to bridge the gap,” she explains.
Another area Avani identifies as having potential for the future is research. “Every para athlete’s physical markers and abilities are different. Data availability and solid research, especially in areas like prosthetics, can complement the work we do to keep improving,” she adds. Avani, who was honoured with the Sportstar Aces Para Athlete of the Year (Female) award in 2022, also believes this is a good time for private players to do what they’ve done for able-bodied sports and athletes in the para ecosystem. The National Camp in New Delhi is step one in a busy calendar for Avani. She heads to South Korea first for the World Cup, with all her preparation geared towards finishing on the podium at the Asian Para Games in China later this year. “When I won the Paralympic gold, it didn’t sink in for quite a long time. But then I took a break and started competing again. The idea was to leave the baggage of success behind and start afresh,” she adds.
Currently pursuing a degree in law, academics fill any gaps in her training itinerary. The real challenge is juggling family and friends while globetrotting. “I am an absent friend and family member because I barely get time. So when I am back or taking a break, catching up with the important people in my life takes top priority,” Avani says. Her discipline and focus in the range are perfectly balanced by a chaotic playlist she turns to right before she goes to shoot, swearing by Punjabi pop sensation Diljit Dosanjh to pump up her mood before any big tournament. For now, Avani is living in the moment, something sport taught her to do when she was at her lowest. “Sport is the only place where you can keep going, even if you lose, and for that I am grateful,” she concludes.
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