India is known to produce a multitude of meticulous and prodigal talents the world has ever witnessed. The country saw the sporting fraternity unleash several domestic talents and younger crops of skillful athletes at an early age this year. While the talent and glimpses of brilliance are there for everyone to see, The Bridge tracks down fifteen such young athletes who are flexing their muscles to secure the country’s entry into the superpower realm, by breaking the mould and sparking on the highest stage.
*Not based on rankings. The numbers are in no particular order.
#15 Naveen Kumar
The youngster emerged as a stellar performer for his Dabang Delhi team. Having scored Super 10 in 21 of 22 matches, Naveen’s jerky footwork has enabled him to collect touchpoints in pressure situations. He smashed his debut season record of 172 raid points as he scored 283 raid points at an unbeaten average of 12.9. The teenage sensation of Pro Kabaddi 2019 is by far the only raider among the top five raiders to have had zero failed raids in any match.
For the 19-year-old, kabaddi started with a routined evening practice in a muddy turf in the village. The game lacked media attention, and even stadiums, drawing lesser than a narrow coverage that led him to doubt the sacrifices made in pursuit of achieving the desired athletic glory and public glare. Besides, economic strain stampeded young Naveen during the initial years of his training but he chose to shine through. He now aspires to participate in Kabaddi Olympics and bring the coveted gold medal to the country.
#14 Diksha Dagar
Born deaf, 18-year-old golfer Diksha Dagar wrote her own piece of history as she became the youngest Indian woman to win on the famed Ladies European Tour (LET) on March 16 this year. Left-hander Diksha is popularly known for her brand of aggressive and fearless golf. While playing at India’s biggest women’s pro event, the Hero Women’s Indian Open in 2016, Diksha, making her first appearance, finished as the top amateur.
She clinched the sliver for India at the Deaflympics in Turkey in 2017. Having been an amateur, Diksha won a Women’s Golf Association of India pro event. She also represented India at the Queen Sirikit Cup event to go on to win the Singapore Open in 2018. With the Olympics still some distance away, who knows Diksha could be notching another title at Tokyo in 2020?
#13 Amit Gulia
The young captain of the Under-23 Indian volleyball team, Amit Gulia steered his team to victory as the country for the first time reached the semi-final of the Asian Men’s Under-23 Championships on August 9 this year after defeating Australia 3-1 in the quarterfinals. The Indian team under Gulia pulled off a spectacular comeback after trailing 16-25 in the first set and went on to win three consecutive sets by 25-19, 25-21, 27-25. The Indian team topped its group which helped it secure a berth in the final eight of the tournament. The Indian side had also registered wins over China and New Zealand earlier.
#12 Komalika Bari
All of 17, Komalika Bari became India’s third woman world champion in World Youth Archery and Cadet Championship in Spain this year. Jharkhand’s Paltan Hansda was the first to achieve this feat in 2006. Komalika became India’s third woman archer world champion in the Under-18 recurve women’s category after Deepika Kumari, who had won the title in 2009. Earlier this year, she made her international debut at the South Asian Championship and ensured herself spots on the Indian side for elite events including World Cups in Turkey and Germany, the World Championships in the Netherlands and the Olympic test event in Tokyo.
#11 Manu Bhaker
Young shooting sensation Manu Bhaker carved out a new record at the recently held ISSF World Cup after she bagged the first-ever gold medal for India at the tournament this year in the women’s 10m Air Pistol. In the process, Manu also broke the junior world record with a total of 244.7. However, Manu also became the second Indian shooter only after Heena Sidhu to walk away with the yellow metal in the women 10m Air Pistol event at the Shooting World Cup.
The 17-year-old Manu set a record in her first-ever Commonwealth Games appearance, after winning a gold medal. Barely 16 years of age, Manu went on bag two gold medals in women’s 10m Air Pistol in the ISSF Senior World Cup held in Mexico last year.
#10 Amarjit Singh Kiyam
The 18-year-old Amarjit Singh Kiyam captained the Indian side at the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Following his fierce display in midfield at the World Cup, Amarjit was selected to play for the Indian Arrows that consisted of Under-20 players. He soon made his professional debut in the team’s first match of the season against Chennai City. Amarjit made his India senior debut on June 5 this year in a 3-1 loss to Curacao.
Amarjit, as a promising youngster, had scripted history by moving from the India Under-17 team to the senior team in a span of just two years. He became the first player to be born after 2000 to compete in the senior squad. Having already booked a place in the squad for the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qualifiers against Oman and Qatar in September this year, Amarjit had to opt out of the team due to an arm injury.
#9 Nihal Sarin
The country has been a repository of some of the finest chess players and child prodigy Nihal Sarin is no different. He became the 12th youngest grandmaster in the history of the sport at the tender age of 14 years. Having scored his third grandmaster norm at the 25th Abu Dhabi Masters, Nihal also became the world Under-10 champion in 2014. He tied for the first position in the world Under-12 Championship in Greece clinching the silver medal on the tiebreak. Nihal became the world’s third youngest to cross 2600 Elo Rating in June.
Nihal bagged a gold medal in the World Blitz Championship in the Under-10 category in 2013. His first breakthrough achievement came at the World Youth Chess Championship in the Under-10 category in September 2014. What perhaps lies ahead for Nihal in the labyrinths of time seems to be very positive. All we can do is just sit back and grace our eyes upon his magnificent gameplay and hope he brings all the records tumbling.
#8 Jemima Rodrigues
The young all-round sensation from Mumbai, Jemima Rodrigues has been earning a name since the day of her debut last year. Jemima was selected for Maharashtra Under-17 and Under-19 hockey teams. She marked her Under-19 debut during the 2012-13 cricket season. Jemima is the second woman after Smriti Mandhana to have scored a double century in a 50-over match. She was called on to represent India for a three-match ODI series against South Africa last year.
#7 Manju Rani
In her maiden appearance at the event, boxer Manju Rani entered the finals of Women’s World Boxing Championships this year to become the first-ever Indian in a span of 18 years to have done so. Sixth-seeded Rani is a silver medallist from the prestigious Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament in Bulgaria earlier this year. Mary Kom qualified for the Worlds on her debut in 2011. Rani is the latest Indian woman boxer to join Mary Kom in her feat.
#6 Deepak Punia
Deepak Punia this year carved out a new record in Indian sports after becoming the first-ever Indian junior world champion in a span of 18 years. He has won the Cadet World Championship in 2016 but narrowly missed out on the bronze medal in the junior worlds in the following year. Last year, he added a silver medal to his kitty in Slovakia. In what’s his latest achievement, he had to settle for a silver medal at the World Wrestling Championships this year in the freestyle 86kg weight category after sustaining serious injuries. Deepak, in the process, managed to book a berth for the 2020 Summer Games.
#5 Srihari Nataraj
With several national records in the 50m, 100m, and 200m last year, swimmer Srihari Nataraj has given us glimpses of his extraordinary talent in a sport in which India has tasted only limited success so far. Srihari’s journey with the sport began in 2011 when he was crowned the sub-junior national champion. Srihari competed in his first-ever national championships in 2010 before even turning 10, where he finished fifth in the 50m backstroke as the youngest swimmer.
He became the first Indian swimmer to reach the finals and finished sixth in the 100m backstroke at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in October last year. He has achieved the 100m backstroke Olympic ‘B’ qualification mark, after clocking a national record 54.69 seconds in the semi-finals at the World Junior Swimming Championships in Hungary. The 18-year-old Srihari then went on to finish seventh in the finals after clocking a timing of 54.85 seconds.
#4 Divyansh Singh Panwar
Competing in only his second senior competition, the 17-year-old shooter Divyansh Singh Panwar on April 26 this year secured India’s fourth quota for Tokyo Olympics next year after winning a silver medal at the ISSF World Cup. He also partnered with Anjum Moudgil to give India the gold medal in the 10m Air Rifle Mixed team event at the tournament. Having won gold, silver and then the Olympic berth, Divyansh has come a long way from being a medal contender to being a winner. The youngster made his debut earlier this year in the Delhi edition of the World Cup where he finished 12th with an overall score of 627.2. At the recently concluded ISSF World Cup finals, Divyansh clinched a gold medal for the country in the men’s 10m Air Rifle event.
#3 Esow Alben
Seventeen-year-old Esow Alben made history on August 16, 2018, after clinching India’s first junior cycling World Cup silver medal in the men’s keirin event of the UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships in Switzerland. The silver medal was his first major achievement in the international circuit. With an impressive campaign at the Asian Championships to count on, Esow had earned the No. 1 ranking in the junior sprint category that made him the first-ever Indian to claim the top spot.
Recently this year, he bagged three medals at the UCI World Junior Track Cycling Championship in Germany, including an individual sprint silver, a team gold, and keirin bronze medal.
Fondly called Siami by her teammates, the rising hockey star is believed to be the highest prospect in the Indian hockey team. Having played a total of 31 minutes in five matches and scored two goals to help India clinch a silver, Lalremsiami was awarded the ‘Under-21 rising star’ award. Struggling to make ends meet back home, Lalremsiami represented India at the 2018 World Cup, where she was the youngest player at 18. She became the first athlete from her hometown Mizoram to an Asian Games medal.
#1 Lakshya Sen
The 18-year-old shuttler Lakshya Sen has demonstrated sparks time and again, that he could be India’s next World No. 1 after Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand. He became the No. 1 in the BWF World Junior ranking. Lakshya again achieved the same feat last year when he was crowned the Asian Junior Champion after he beat the top-seeded World No. 1 Kunlavut Vitidsarn in the final. He also participated in the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics and settled for a silver medal. Recently, he won his maiden BWF World Tour title after winning the Dutch Open men’s singles tournament. Besides, he won the SaarLorLux Open, a BWF Tour Super 100 event, in Germany. He won his fourth title in the Scottish Open last month, with an impressive victory against Brazil’s Ygor Coelho in what was a summit clash.