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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Paralysed from waist down, but ‘Jaipur ki Maharani’ shoots down Paralympic gold

In Tokyo on Monday, Avani fired a round of 621.7 in qualification after a shaky start but recovered to be placed seventh after the qualification round and make the final.

Written by Nitin Sharma , Shahid Judge |
Updated: August 30, 2021 3:58:22 pm
Avani LekharaWomen's 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 - Medal Ceremony - Asaka Shooting Range, Tokyo, Japan - August 30, 2021. Gold Medallist Avani Lekhara of India celebrates on the podium. (REUTERS/Issei Kato)

As 19-year-old Avani Lekhara won the gold medal in women’s 10m air rifle Standing event in the SH 1 category at the Tokyo Paralympics, father Praveen was filled with emotions.

In 2012, the whole Lekhara family met with an accident on their way to Dholpur from Jaipur. The then 11-year-old Avani suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralysed below the waist. As the teenager became Paralympic champion with a record score of 249.6 in the final, Praveen – who works in the Revenue Appellate Authority – remembered the fateful day.

“I was posted as ADM at Dholpur at that time and we were travelling from Jaipur to Dholpur when our car skidded and turned turtle. While all of us – including my wife Shweta and younger son Arnav – were injured, Avani suffered spinal cord injuries and was paralysed from the waist down,” Praveen told The Indian Express.

In Tokyo on Monday, Avani fired a round of 621.7 in qualification after a shaky start but recovered to be placed seventh after the qualification round and make the final. In the final, she led from the start and edged out China’s Zhang C and Ukraine’s I Shchetnik in the medal series to win the gold.

Avani Lekhara Women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 Final: Avani Lekhara of India and Cuiping Zhang of China in action. (REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Avani showed interest in studying as well as dance from a young age and used to participate in dance competitions at Kendriya Vidyalaya 3, Jaipur. After the accident, she had to spend more than three months at the SMS Hospital in Jaipur before another four at the Indian Spinal Injury Centre (ISIC) at New Delhi. For the next two and a half years, the family would take Avani for treatment at various hospitals in Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

In 2014, Praveen took his daughter to the Jagatpura Shooting Range to keep the youngster occupied as well as setting a target for herself. “I was in hospital when doctors told me that Avani has been paralysed below the waist. After initial treatment in Agra, she was shifted to SMS Hospital in Jaipur before spending time at ISIC in Delhi. Doctors had told us that we have to keep her physically as well as mentally fit to have any chance of recovery and that’s why I got her enrolled at the shooting range in Jaipur. Initially, I got her a rented air rifle as we wanted to gauge her interest. She liked it as much as she likes reading books, and it was the start of a new journey for her,” remembers the father.

How it began

In 2016, Avani started training under coach Chandra Shekhar at the Jagatpura Shooting Range and he made her focus on 50m rifle events apart from 10m air rifle events. Apart from winning titles in the National Para Shooting Championship, she would win a silver medal with a junior world record at the WSPS World Cup in Al Ain in 2017 and a bronze at the WSPS World Cup in Bangkok the same year. It took the coach some time to work on Avani’s technique but he found Avani’s mental fortitude as her biggest strength.

 Avani Lekhara Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games: Avani Lekhara of India before competing. (REUTERS/Issei Kato)

“Besides the physical or technical aspects, shooting remains a mental sport at the core and that’s what made Avani a good shooter even in her initial days. I understood that I cannot put her under more physical load so we would work on the basics in small sessions apart from training with a Feinwerkbau 800 junior rifle, which was much lighter compared to other rifles. Once she was comfortable shooting in the wheelchair and the adjustments, we went from 50 shots to even 200 shots in a session. Slowly, she built accuracy and her focus to learn helped her. Later, she practised for 3-4 hours in the 50m rifle event too and it showed her physical strength too. Between shooting, she would read novels or biographies to keep herself busy,” remembers the coach.

Fine-tuning

In 2018, Avani would also start training under coach Suma Shirur at the Lakshya Shooting Club in Mumbai or online sessions and practising with a computerised digital target at home provided by the Sports Authority of India. She would win the silver medal in the WSPC world Cup in Croatia in 2019 before another one at the WSPC World Cup in Al Ain earlier this year.

“Initially when she came to train with me, we worked upon having consistency in her shooting. It was a mix of offline and online sessions and she adjusted to it very keenly. It was very demanding to train a para shooter. The shooting remains the same but as a coach, I had to improvise. It was about understanding the best load position for her and amalgamation of her technique and biology. We also had to make adjustments to establish her base with only the upper body which is not the case with a normal shooter, who uses the feet to balance,” says Suma.

The academy and its other trainees needed to make some adjustments and go the extra mile for Avani.

“The other shooters lift her wheelchair with her on it. Unfortunately, when the academy was built (first floor), we were short of funds and didn’t have a lift. She (Avani) is very lightweight, so everybody together would lift her up. She is the ‘Jaipur ki Maharani’ for all of us, simply because she’s so adorable. We had also redone the washroom at the club to make it para-athlete friendly,” Suma says.

Before the Tokyo Paralympics, Chandra Shekhar also spent time with Avani adjusting her wheelchair position as the youngster faced some pain in her lower body during training sessions. “We spent a lot of time on recovery and strengthening exercises earlier this year to get her ready for Tokyo,” he says.

Suma considers Monday’s performance as one of Avani’s best. “I am happy the way she held her nerve in the final and displayed confidence. To win a gold medal with a new record is fantastic. She made a shaky start in qualification but after a few shots, we had a talk and once she found her technique, there was no looking back for her,” she says.

After the disappointment at the Tokyo Olympics, Suma returned to India before going back for the Paralympics. Indian shooting had been looking for a morale-booster, and Suma said Avani’s achievement has come as a breath of fresh air.

“After I came back here (Tokyo), I was feeling so much better. I felt this was necessary and important for me to come back here because I didn’t want to leave this place on a bad note. I’m glad I got a chance to get back here.”

As for father Praveen, he knows what India’s latest Paralympic champion will be doing in Tokyo. “I am sure she will be having some continental food and listening to her favourite Punjabi songs to celebrate this medal,” he says.

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