Harshita Tomar’s fate was sealed even before she was born. Her mother, a CRPF officer, was posted in Srinagar during peak winter when she was pregnant. Immediately after Harshita’s birth, the family moved to Hoshangabad, where the extreme heat started to have severe impact on the newborn’s health. “I had to take her to our family doctor every day for two years,” her father Devendra Tomar recently said. “He advised us to keep Harshita near water for a healthy life.”
By the time she was two, Harshita was swimming in the open waters of Narmada. A few months after she turned 10, she was cherry-picked from dozens for the National Sailing Academy in Bhopal. On Friday, the 16-year-old won a bronze medal in the laser 4.7 class, the only category where men and women are pitted against each other.
She was one of the three medalists from sailing. 2014 Asian Games bronze medalist Varsha Gautham returned with a silver this time in the 49er, an Olympic class, along with her crew Sweta Shervegar, while Varun Ashok Thakkar and K C Ganapathy clinched a bronze in the men’s 49er to record India’s best performance since the 1982 Asiad. Harshita, meanwhile, became one of India’s youngest sailors to win an Asian Games medal.
And it hasn’t come without a sacrifice. Harshita has stayed away from home for the last four years, visiting only for a few days every five or six months. Last year, she decided to put her education on hold, much against the wishes of her parents who’d introduced her to the sport purely for health reasons. “I used to be a swimmer and when the Madhya Pradesh Sports Academy coaches came for a talent search program, they spotted me as a swimmer. Later on, the coaches felt I was suited more for sailing,” Harshita says.
She joined the sailing academy without any hesitation. Soon, she started bossing the Optimist class, a beginner’s boat which is small in size and has smaller sails compared to the other designs. The 4.7, the next level boat, is a non-Olympic class meant for sailors aged under 18. The boat used is the same as the Laser Radial (an Olympic event for women), but the size of sails varies.
Being a youth event, it was the only sailing event where boys and girls competed against each other. Alexandr Denisiuc, Moldovian coach of the Indian team, says the mixed gender competition put Harshita at a disadvantage. “Some of the boys here are 62kg, they have an advantage of 13-14 kilos over Harshita. She is just 50. So they have weight advantage to resist the sail and the first few days, we had windy conditions. Imagine how hard she had to work to fight against the boys,” Denisiuc says.
The difficulty can be gauged from the fact that Harshita is the only girl to finish in top five of this event. Malaysia’s Muhammad Fauzi Kaman Shah took the gold medal ahead of China’s Jianxiong Wang, who took silver.
Now that she’s won a medal, Harshita finds herself in a bigger dilemma. Last year, she dropped out of school to focus solely on sailing. Her parents were dead against the idea of her taking a sabbatical — especially because she was in class 10. “The training lasts around 10-12 hours every day so I had to drop out of school. My parents weren’t okay with the idea so my coach (GL Yadav) and the state’s sports minister called them for a meeting and convinced them. Eventually, they supported my decision,” Harshita says.
When she returns, Harshita will have to begin preparing for the class 10 exam. But Denisiuc has already set her a new target — gain a minimum 10kg muscle weight in the coming year to progress to the next stage — the laser radial. “Right now, she has good core and good brain. But changing of class is like starting a new life,” Denisiuc says.
For someone who had to take to waters to start a new, healthy life, this should be appear as a small bargain.