From Sailing to Fencing - Parents behind Indian Olympians in sports taking new strides
Behind every athlete stepping into uncharted territories lie parents who are the actual pillars of support and unsung heroes helping the dream bloom.
Playing a game of tug-o-war since inception, sports and academics, especially in a country like India has been at loggerheads with Indian parents almost always tugging hardest at the academics rope, meeting sports with a frown. Outside of the gambit of popular sports of cricket, badminton, football, tennis, hockey in the country, there exists a larger arena of sports where Indians are yet to delve in with full force - apprehensions, confusions and a thousand should-they-shouldn't-they moments later, certain sports miss out on sharing the same limelight space as others.
As India celebrates National Sports Day on 29th August, let's take a look at those athletes and their parents who dared to dream, sail into uncharted waters, go against the tide, breach new territories and putt away to glory.
For the last two months, India has been soaking itself up in the spirit of the Olympic Games with both the Tokyo Olympics and now, the Tokyo Paralympics being held. Athletes have come up, as have their inspiring stories and from them, we take a look at 4 Olympians and their parents who have not rhymed with the rest and picked a lesser known sport and found success in it!
#Aditi Ashok - Golf
On the penultimate day of the Tokyo Olympics, a whole country woke up in the wee hours of dawn to watch a certain lithe, soft-spoken girl from Bangalore take to the greens at the Kasumigaseki Country Club. That lithe, soft spoken girl was none other than Aditi Ashok, who was hot on the medal chase, with her mother, Mash Ashok, caddying by her side. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, it was her father, Ashok Gudlamani, who would caddy for her. Although she missed out on the medal by a whisker, finishing fourth, she has found a whole nation of fans rooting for her and golf now - a feat unthinkable before.
For the Ashok's, Aditi's interest in golf was never discouraged. On the contrary, when Aditi began showing interest in the sport when she was just 5 years of age, her father, Gudlamani, took her to the Karnataka Golf Association range to get her enrolled. With constant encouragement and support from the family who believes in prioritising the happiness of their child and even caddies with her at the stage of the Olympics, it surely means a lot.
"I think when my dad's there (as a caddie) he knows my game a lot more, probably sometimes more than I know myself, so I always feel compelled to rely on him sometimes," Aditi had told the Golf Channel during the Olympics.
"My mom's there, I can ask her anything, but in terms of like golf advice she may not be able to help me as much as my dad. I guess I'm committing to my decisions more and being more decisive on my own," Aditi had mentioned, highlighting the difference of having both parents as her caddy.
#Nethra Kumanan - Sailing
Part-time sailor and part-time mechanical engineer is perhaps how Olympian Nethra Kumanan has learnt to see herself as she dons both caps with equal flair. Born to a family who have understood the happiness of the child first and supported them throughout, Nethra has been lucky. In a conversation with The Bridge, Nethra's father, VC Kumanan, who owns a software company, chuckles and tells us, "I would ask Nethra - "What do you want to do today? Do you want to go to school or do you want to go sailing?"
"Initially, both my children were into many sports. We wanted them to be more engaged in sports as much as possible - we didn't think what kind of sport it was,popular or rare, it was all about how much they were enjoying it and if they are actively participating in it and feeling good about themselves," Kumanan remarks. Nethra, who studies Mechanical Engineering at SRM became the first Indian woman sailor to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
"Sailing is very interesting. You are on a vast expanse of water, you are all by yourself, at some level. It's a good feeling - children always love water, this kind of activity they were very happy about, they would look forward to the Sailing day every week. That is what made us encourage them more," Kumanan recalls when asked if he had any apprehension about Nethra choosing sailing.
However, it wasn't always smooth sailing either as there were challenges and things to juggle for the family of the bronze medallist from the 2020 Sailing World Cup. "Our challenge was how to balance academics with sailing. Sailing is a European-dominated sport, so it required Nethra to travel to Europe in case she wanted to enhance her performance, which meant staying away from classes. She did lose a period of 4 years over the last 10 years but that is okay because she was training for Asian Games or for Olympics or World Championships - you definitely need a capsule of strong training before these large events."
VC Kumanan, a former sportsperson himself, having dabbled in badminton, running, hockey and volleyball knows the grind required to excel in sports and therefore bore the same mentality for his kids. "We kept encouraging children in what they were good at or felt good at. As they won medals at the national level or they represented India at the Asian games which are huge achievements from a normal Indian perspective, it encouraged us more."
Talking about Indian parents and their general mindset towards their children, Kumanan wisely comments, "It is always better to think that your child knows more because they are on the spot. We parents think that we have to build the career of our children but it is they who do it, we are only conduits or support mechanisms. Instead of pushing the child, let them decide for themselves. But India has changed now - a lot of people have come up now to help the children focus on whatever they want and this generation is now more aware and ready to explore new territories, unlike before."
#Bhavani Devi - Fencing
When Bhavani Devi made the decision to take up fencing, there was no real motive behind it barring the opportunity to learn a new sport in school. It was a chance with fate that brought her into the world of foil, epee, and sabres. Her parents were extremely supportive of her right from her school days.
However, Bhavani hails from a very humble background and fencing is an expensive sport to practise, let alone compete in. A lot of financial constraints came Bhavani and her family's way but the hurdles were overcome with her family sticking with her through thick and thin - being strong pillars by making sacrifices.
In an interview with the Deccan Chronicle , Bhavani recalls how she was asked her father's income when she signed up for it in school. "I hail from a middle-class family, so I knew I couldn't afford the sport, but I wanted to get trained, so I lied, exaggerating my father's income," she reveals. "I realised that the game was beyond the reach of commoners. I used to practice with bamboo sticks," she recalls, adding that the extensive travelling and training that was needed added to her financial woes.
An MBA graduate as well, Bhavani Devi, created history at the Tokyo Olympics as she won her Round of 64 match against Nadia Azizi before losing to eventual bronze medallist, Manon Brunet in the Round of 32 clash. "My mother constantly kept me motivated and focussed," Bhavani mentioned in an interview. "The sacrifices my family made have only made me determined to give my best."
Her father, A Sundharam was a priest at a temple and supported Bhavani Devi right until his unfortunate demise in 2019. There was constant monetary support from him despite having to endure the expenses of her training and travel with no government grants or additional means of income support.
It is also stated that her mother sold her jewelry to provide the much-needed monetary boost during the initial days of her career. Regardless of various stories and reports, what stands out is that never once did her parents deny her the opportunity to build a career in sports based on financial constraints.