Rama of the Ramayana and Arjuna of the Mahabharata are considered as legendary archers and their skill was seen to represent greatness, power, and purity of purpose. However despite this deep-rooted connection with Indian mythology, ‘Archery’ has not flourished as a mass sport in modern India.
India got its first feel of international archery, at the CWG in New Delhi, on October 10, 2010, when Deepika Kumari had an individual and a team gold medal around her neck. Modern Indian archery hadn’t seen such a meteoric rise before.
From being rejected as an emaciated 12-year-old kid to becoming the world’s no 1 archer, Deepika Kumari is a story of grits, guts, and gumption.
Deepika’s journey that started from Arjun Munda’s Academy in Kharsawan, a small town surrounded by the idyllic Chandil-Gamharia forest range, rose to prominence at the Tata Archery Academy which later became her ‘second home’.
During the summer of 2006, Deepika visited her best friend-cum-cousin Deepti Kumari at Lohardaga, about 70kms from her hometown at Ratu in Ranchi during her vacations and that’s when she decided to take up archery and follow the footsteps of her cousin to reduce the financial burden of her father, an autorickshaw driver, and mother who used to work as a nurse.
After returning to Ranchi, she told her parents Shivnarayan and Geeta Mahato about her interest in archery. But her family wasn’t happy with this choice.
Kumari was handed an ultimatum by her father. If she chose to go, she would sacrifice her ties with her family. Kumari made her choice and, for years, didn’t return home.
A strict disciplinarian from a very young age, Deepika would be the first to come to the ground and start her drills. She would always do it two times of what she was told during the drills. With her frail structure, her body would easily give up, but she would keep running, doing other drills, double than others.
She was not perfect skillwise, but she gave it all to rectify her mistakes. Looking at her keenness, the staff would give special attention to her diet.
Deepika made her debut at sub-junior nationals in Jabalpur in 2007 but only to return empty-handed. It was only at Vijaywada, where she tasted her first success with a gold medal.
She moved from the Jharkhand academy to the Sports Authority of India centre in Kolkata in 2008 and, during breaks in training at the national camp, she would live in a hostel in Ranchi.
Reconciliation with her family came with her first big win. In 2010, as TV channels across the country celebrated her medals at the CWG, her father Shivnarayan Mahato told the cameras that he had underestimated her determination.
Since then she has not looked back. And the rest as they say is history. Her first World Cup gold was in 2012. The same year she got the Arjuna Award. The Padma Shri would follow in 2016.
Deepika is the best archer in India and one of the best in the world. Her story is one of inspiration. From rags to riches. One hopes we do not forget her when she is no longer an archer, whenever that does happen. It is time that the Indian athlete was honoured and Deepika certainly deserves it.