Girl with the golden arrow

Time seems to stand still at the Salt Lake SAI campus in Kolkata,with Deepika Kumari waiting taut as she fixes the arrow on the bow and takes aim.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Published: May 13, 2012 2:40 am

Time seems to stand still at the Salt Lake SAI campus in Kolkata,with Deepika Kumari waiting taut as she fixes the arrow on the bow and takes aim. As she releases the string and the arrow zips out to hit bull’s eye,a tiny twitch of her lips lights up Deepika’s face. The recent gold medal at a World Cup Stage II in Antalya,Turkey has turned this small-time village girl into a star archer,her face adorning national sports pages. Success in Turkey though,has only made Deepika even more determined. Squarely set in her sights now,is the Olympic medal.

Life in fact hasn’t been the same for Deepika since she bagged two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. The prize money and the cash awards definitely gave her added incentive to excel in the sport. But the youngster remains thrifty in her spending,and is hardly ever tempted to splurge. “She has a cellphone now. But she can’t still use it when in the academy. She is only 17,and as per our rules no junior can own a phone,” says Poornima Mahto,who travels with her and is like her elder sister,mentor and coach. “But because she is in the Indian team camp in Kolkata,she needs it to stay in touch with the family.”

The Special One

At 17,she has a World Cup bronze,and now a gold medal in her kitty. Not for nothing is she being heralded as the ‘Sachin Tendulkar’ of Indian archery. In Antalya,her opponent in the final was South Korean Lee Sung Jin. A silver medallist in the 2004 Athens Olympics,Lee had truckloads of experience on her side. The seasoned Korean went up 2-0 and then 4-2,but Deepika showed the courage and composure to turn the tide.

“Deepika’s biggest strength is fearlessness. She doesn’t care about reputations. Rarely have I seen a player as mentally strong as Deepika is. She is a special talent,” coach Mahto says.

With a shy smile,Deepika accepts the compliment. “I was not nervous before the World Cup final against Lee. I never am,” she says,matter-of-factly. “I don’t look at the score sheet during competition. In fact,it helped as I never felt the pressure of going down in the early rounds.”

Irreverence might serve her well,to go with her fearlessness when she competes at Lord’s. Seeing the historic venue from the cricket-lens and building an aura around it will only pile on the pressure. The greatest of cricketers have needed to overcome butterflies before making their first apperance at this legendary venue. Deepika,though,is hardly hassled. She believes that the secret for success lies in keeping her nerve rather than having to master the conditions.

“London is not new to me. I participated there in an age-group tournament three years ago. And Lord’s would be just another venue,” she says,shrugging.

Competitors or conditions can’t upset the little lady. Lack of proper equipment can. Archery Association of India (AAI) general secretary Paresh Nath Mukherjee still can’t help smiling over what happened to Deepika during the 2011 World Championships in Turin,Italy. “It was the main qualification tournament for London Olympics. Deepika’s bow bag didn’t arrive. She started to cry. It eventually landed just a few hours before the start of the tournament. But the team still won the silver and qualified for the Olympics,” he recalls.

First few steps

Baggage hassles might have brought her to desperate tears,but Deepika’s done her battling ever since she was 10 — starting with unsure parents,from whom she earned the right to continue in the sport. Her mother Deepa Devi remembers how at 10,Deepika travelled to her maternal grandparents’ home in Lohardagga. A local archery competition was underway in Kharsawa (80 kms from Lohardagga),where Deepika’s cousin was participating and she went over to watch her. Deepika was smitten at first sight.

“My husband (Shivnarayan Mahto) and I travelled with her on a borrowed motorcyle to take her to the next competition in Kharsawa. But she did badly and was not picked for the academy. She came home and cried endlessly and was after us to find a way to get her into the academy,” Mahto recalls. “A friend was working for Chief Minister Arjun Munda’s wife,Meera. The idea was if she was willing to help,Deepika would get selected.”

Meera Munda took one look at the girl and wondered how this short and thin kid would even lift the heavy bow. But Deepika was allowed an audience with her,and next thing they knew she was enlisted at the academy. “I was told later that Deepika had made a deal with Meeraji. She would either improve her shooting in the academy in three months or would leave. In three months she shot at her first international in Bangkok and impressed everyone.”

Mahto narrates another interesting story. “Before she left for the Turkey meet,Deepika’s father had asked her how every other sportsman in India was famous,but her name never appears in the papers. She said,‘Wait,after this tournament I will be in every newspaper.’ And she won it!”

Home truths

Born at Ratu Chati village — about 15 kilometres off Ranchi,to Shivnarayan,an auto-rickshaw driver,and nurse Deepa Devi,Deepika aimed at mangoes with stones — and missed next to none. She’d practice with bamboo bows and arrows and used proper equipment only after joining the Arjun Archery Academy at Kharsawa. “Staying away from my parents was not easy as a kid. But now I’m used to it,” says Deepika.

There were some pretty rough times for the family. “There were days when we were not sure about our next meal. But my parents always encouraged me to chase my dream. Now I am trying to help them live a better life. Our house at Ratu Chati is still not a fully concrete structure,though the family has now bought some land from the cash incentives after CWG. I have asked my parents to move to Ranchi. But they are reluctant. They have a special bond with the locals there and don’t want to break it,” she says,smiling.

After joining the the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur in 2006,she received Rs 500 as stipend even as she trained under Mahto and Dharmendra Tiwary. Three years later,the 14-year old became the youngest Indian winner of the the cadet world Championship. What is also special about Deepika is her yet unfettered optimism. “She has natural talent but the main thing is that she always thinks positive,” Mahto explains.

No compromise

Deepika also never compromised on her training. “I train for about eight hours a day. Now that the Olympics is approaching,I need to increase it by a little more.”

Deepika doesn’t mind the sacrifices expected of a top performer. Running after glory,she is ready to pay the price. What little time she has to unwind,she is plugged into music by singer Shaan. Her only regret — her schedule doesn’t allow her to appear for her Class XII exams. But there’ll be time for that after August. For now,her aim is to do what even state-mate Mahendra Singh Dhoni couldn’t — win big at Lord’s.

The Indian cricket captain has been Ranchi’s most popular face,by a distance. In two months’ time,however,he might have a competitor if Deepika returns with a medal.

She was still taking early steps in her archery career,when the Dhoni saved India a Test match at Lord’s in 2007. Four years later,she watched a very successful Indian captain lose some of his aura at the very same venue. In August this year,she could gain one for the very first time.

(With inputs from Vinayak Padmadeo)

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