Avani Lekhara has come a long way since a road accident at the age of 10 left her paralysed waist down. Back then, she hated being photographed.
Since becoming the first Indian woman to win multiple medals at the Paralympics – a gold medal in women’s 10m air rifle standing SH1 and a bronze in women’s 50m rifle 3 positions SH1 – Lekhara has had a bevy of sponsorships and contract offers, including an opportunity to model for a global sportswear manufacturer.
“It feels surreal. I didn’t expect a lifestyle like this. I was just into shooting. It was a hobby at the start... I did a photo-shoot with PUMA, a first for me. Earlier, I didn’t want to show my face in front of the camera. But now, it feels great to pose again. I feel more confident of myself now... It is exciting but I want to focus on shooting more and win more medals. I don’t want to distract myself,” Lekhara says.
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Her story of resilience and ambition transcend the realm of sport.
The Jaipur-based shooter says, “I feel that even if I inspire one person and someone says, ‘Because of you, I did not give up,' that would be my real success. It would mean a lot to me.”
Para sports is getting greater visibility, and the credit goes to the athletes. India won 19 medals at the Paralympics last year — its best-ever haul.
India’s achievements have paved the way for dialogue on the stigma surrounding people with disabilities and prejudice against women in fields otherwise dominated by men. She doesn’t shy away from voicing her views on how India can make up the leeway in fostering inclusion.
“When I started out, there was no accessible infrastructure as such in Jaipur. But now things are improving, not just in Jaipur but all over India. Para sports is being recognised more. They are making new academies for people with disabilities. However, I feel there should be more specialised para coaches. The wheelchair and prosthetics should be made available to all who require them,” she says.
Lekhara is only the third Indian woman to have won a medal at the Paralympic Games after Deepa Malik’s silver in shot put F53 in Rio 2016 and Bhavina Patel’s silver in table tennis singles C4 in Tokyo 2020. She believes this is only the beginning.
“Hopefully, we see more women medallists in the future. As women, we work equally hard and with the same passion as men. The myth that women can’t win gold for India has been burst... The barrier has been broken!” Lekhara says.
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Lekhara is yet to find the ideal place in her home to place the medals, which by her admission, have kept her motivated.
“They inspire me to do better. The media have also given me a platform to tell people who are sad after a period of trauma or an accident that life doesn’t end there. There is still a bright ray of hope in the future if they accept whatever has happened and give their 100 per cent to what they are inclined to do.”
Lekhara is going above and beyond the call of duty to realise her dream of winning more medals for India.
“I do a lot of core exercises because balancing is important in shooting. I do a lot of upper-body-strengthening exercises. Also, passive exercises and stretching for my legs to keep them okay. I stand using a walker. I also take the help of dumbbells, TheraBand. I concentrate more on cardio like wheelchair running and taking wheelchair on slopes,” she says.
With the Asian Para Games scheduled in October followed by the World Championships in November this year, Lekhara feels there isn’t a moment to lose. Also, the Paris Paralympics is only two years away. Alongwith physical training, she is dedicating a lot of time to her mental health as well.
“Shooting is more of a mental game. In the finals, the top eight athletes are physically, more or less, the same. But the person with the stronger mind wins the medal. I have a mental trainer, who helps me a lot,” says Lekhara.
“We have customised mental-training exercises. We do yoga and pranayama. It is important to allot a separate slot for your mental well-being. Not just sportspersons, we all need time every day to take a deep breath and some time out for ourselves. We need to motivate ourselves to be at our best version all the time.”