When one talks about sports in India, the least likely name you will hear is Skiing. In a country dominated by cricket, most of the other sports jostle for some attention and a winter sport like Skiing is considered nothing more than a leisure activity.
When the government of India released their scheme for the Olympians titled TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) which targetted more than 100 athletes – looking after their training costs and giving them a monthly stipend, it didn’t include even a single winter sport athlete.
In fact, the Winter Games Federation of India is not even recognized by the sports ministry which means that the athletes do not receive any money from the government and have hardly any infrastructure to practice.
But against all these odds, 21-year-old girl Aanchal Thakur, from Himachal Pradesh, scripted history when she became the first Indian to win an international medal in skiing. She picked up a Bronze Medal at the Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup organised by the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) — skiing's international governing body.
Two days before the race, Thakur had cut her hand and was vomiting profusely, hesitating to even take part in the competition.
She was knocked out in the first round on 8th of January and went into the final day low on confidence. After clearing the 1st round, she again struggled in the second round – wanting to quit midway.
“It was an extremely difficult race, I just wanted to complete the course but was absolutely delighted and surprised to see that I had won the medal,” Thakur said, talking exclusively to News18 from Turkey.
But the journey for the medal has been a tough one, Thakur has had to spent money from her own pocket to train and compete in international competitions.
Skiing though is more than a sport and runs in the family for Thakur.
“My father was a national level champion and he taught us about skiing which we initially did only for fun. Only when I turned 11, I started taking the sport seriously,” says Thakur, whose brother – Himanshu Thakur - is also an alpine skier and competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The two trained together in Italy, Austria among other countries with the support of their father Roshan Lal Thakur – who also happens to be Secretary General of the Winter Games Federation of India.
"I can't express my joy in words. She has been training very hard since childhood and this medal has brought her recognition. We hope she will get help now," the proud father said, on his daughter’s outstanding achievement.
Thakur wanted to seal a spot in the Winter Olympics for which she needed a total score of below 140 points, despite winning a medal, she couldn’t seal a spot.
“The course was so tough that even the winner couldn’t score less than 140,” she says.
But she is hoping that this medal will force the country to take winter sports more seriously.
“We have the magnificent Himalayas, where people from all over the world come to ski. But despite that we have only three resorts – Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh – where even the basic facilities are not present. We need a grooming machine, just to smoothen the snow and ensure that the course isn’t dangerous for the skiers, even that isn’t available,” she says, with the disappointment palpable in her voice.
Skiing is an expensive sport, with equipments costing in the range of Rs 5-10 lakhs if one is to compete internationally. With no government encouragement, the sport becomes difficult to pursue and is more often than not restricted to a leisure activity.
“Hopefully the government will take us seriously now and I hope my medal win will become a platform for other people in the country who wish to pursue the sport.” Thakur says.
Her effort has certainly not gone unnoticed with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore congratulating the 21-year-old on Twitter.
She will now be travelling back to India before going to Iceland for further competitions. Getting a ticket to Pyeongchang is a difficult task as she would need to score less than 140 points in five races before 21st January – which is the cut-off date for qualification.
But she has set her sights firmly on the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“Hopefully with the much needed government support, I will be able to prepare and qualify for the next Olympics.” Thakur says, signing off.