Playing it their way

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New Delhi | Updated: Feb 20, 2018 5:08 PM

With people being consumed with cricket, the achievements of sportspersons involved in sports like kayaking, fencing, surfing, etc, more often than not go unnoticed. And yet, they are soldiering on, fighting hard to make these sports a prominent part of the Indian sporting culture...

fencing , ice hockey, kayaking, surfing, cricket, sportsBhavani Devi, a fencer from India, won the country’s first gold at the Tournoi Satellite Fencing Championship in Reykjavik. (Reuters)

In June 2017, the world went berserk when Afghanistan, a war-torn country, became part of the International Cricket Council’s Test-playing nations along with Ireland. Cricket pundits and sporting fanatics in India went to great lengths, discussing and debating as to how this would usher in a new era for the sport.

Just a couple of weeks before that, however, an Indian sportsperson had made history too. Bhavani Devi, a fencer from India, won the country’s first gold at the Tournoi Satellite Fencing Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, but she didn’t find a mention anywhere.

Nor did Kaustubh Khade, who finished kayaking from Kutch to Kanyakumari in 84 days a few months before.

In a cricket-obsessed nation like ours, sports like kayaking, fencing, surfing, etc, are often relegated to the sidelines. A majority of the Indian populace is so glued to cricket that the achievements of these sportspersons go unnoticed.

Undeterred, though, they are still going full steam ahead, winning and excelling in sports that many people in the country haven’t even heard of…

Forward stroke: Here is how Kaustubh Khade taking kayaking at next level

It takes roughly 40 hours to reach Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu) from Kutch (Gujarat) by road—a distance of around 2,600 km. By train, it takes 24 hours. But in November 2016, Mumbai-based kayaker Kaustubh Khade decided to cover the distance on his kayak and achieved the extraordinary feat of travelling from Kutch to Kanyakumari in just 84 days.

An engineer by training, 31-year-old Khade (who has been kayaking for a decade now) chose to venture into watersports in 2007 after graduating from IIT-Delhi. He is currently touted as the best kayaker in India.

Explaining what the sport is all about, Khade says, “It’s different from a fisherman’s boat. You use a double-ended paddle on both the sides to steer the kayak, unlike a single paddle on conventional boats.” Simply put, kayaking means using a kayak to move across water with the help of paddles.

Even though the sport is still considered niche in India, it has, in the past couple of years, gained some traction. Today, around 20 states actively participate in kayaking at national championships. The Indian national team, in fact, has made significant impact among Asian nations. “When I made it to the Indian team in 2012, I met people who were putting their day and night behind the sport. It was very encouraging. Currently, we are making giant strides at the Asian level. The sport is definitely picking up,” says Khade.

He is right. Over the years, kayaking’s popularity has grown steadily. It’s a common sight these days to see adventure sports enthusiasts thronging beach destinations such as Goa and Kerala to get a taste of the watersport. This, in turn, is contributing to the growth of the tourism sector in these places.

To cash in on the frenzy, Mahesh Sanap started Wilder West Adventures in 2014, a professional white-water rafting operation based in Kolad, Maharashtra. Wilder West offers watersport activities such as kayaking, white-water rafting, scuba diving, etc, around the river Kundalika. Since it began, they have seen a massive upsurge in the number of tourists opting for kayaking. “Initially, people would be sceptic. They thought it was like boating. As more and more people came to us, we explained to them how it was a different watersport altogether. Today, we see families, college students and even office-goers asking us for kayaks. It’s heartening to see how the sport is picking up,” says Sanap.

Despite the positives, however, there are certain bottlenecks as well. Many people are still not aware of the sport, let alone its technicalities. Khade recounts an incident a couple of years back when he was asked by the police to move his kayak while he was kayaking in Mumbai. “It was behind the mayor’s bungalow near Marine Drive. I was kayaking and a cop came to enquire. He had no knowledge about what I was there for. So he asked me to move from there,” laughs Khade.

This lack of knowledge is what the Indian Kayaking & Canoeing Association, the apex body for the sport in India, is trying to combat. A slew of measures by the association to bring the sport to the forefront and make it part of the Indian sporting culture have helped it grow. Balbir Singh Kushwaha, secretary general, Indian Kayaking & Canoeing Association, believes kayaking is heading in the right direction, but needs more support from the government. “We are doing what we can to ensure that the sport reaches the masses, but that’s not enough. To take the sport forward, we need educated coaches and better equipment. We are working with respective state governments and sports bodies to encourage participation among children. Funding is a major constraint… We need more,” he says.

There are other constraints as well. A major one is the lack of availability of equipment in the country, which leaves kayakers no other option but to source from abroad, which is a big hassle. “I had to import my gear from different countries, as nothing of good quality is available in India. A heavy import duty is levied, forcing us to shell more from our pockets. We need better equipment manufacturers, as everyone can’t pay such high duty,” says Khade, who dreams of traversing the entire coastline of India. “The coastline stands at 7,500 km, of which I have 4,000 km more to cover. The other dream is to compete in the open race in Hawaii, the unofficial world championship of surf-ski (a long, narrow, lightweight kayak with an open cockpit, usually with a foot pedal-controlled rudder),” he says.

Fencing: Here is how the the sport developing in India

Bhavani Devi was 11 years old when she picked up fencing as a sport at her school in Tamil Nadu in 2004. While most of her classmates went for popular sports, Devi had her eyes set on the sword. “I chose fencing because it was different and not a lot of people thought that girls could participate in such sports. I wanted to prove them wrong,” says 23-year-old Devi.

Based on the traditional skills of swordsmanship, fencing involves one-on-one combat, for which a player uses a fencing foil (a type of sword) to hit particular targets on the opponent’s body. There are three rounds of 7 minutes each and the gear is fitted with sensors that help in identifying the touch points to facilitate scoring.

Like any other form of one-on-one combat, fencing, too, requires exceptionally quick reflexes. As per Devi, the trick to succeed is to keep your eyes still and read your opponent’s movements. “Since the rounds are of very short duration, there is no scope for any error. The area to compete in is also very small, so it’s important that you keep a track of your feet, and attack and defend at the same time,” she says.

Since picking up the sport at a tender age, Devi has gone on to achieve many a milestone. The most prominent among them is the gold medal she won at the sabre event of the Tournoi Satellite Fencing Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2017. Currently ranked 36 in the International Fencing Federation’s rankings for global women fencers, Devi believes the sport has a long way to go in India.

Basheer Khan, secretary general, Fencing Association of India, the apex body for the sport in India, agrees. “A lot is yet to be achieved. There was a time when there was no funding, no infrastructure and no equipment. However, things are changing. The government is recognising fencing as a potential sport for winning medals at international events. It has also been included in the Khelo India initiative. We have now asked for a training facility in Chhattisgarh,” he says.

The change Khan is talking about is also coming owing to the ability of the sport to make individuals, especially women, learn self-defence. “Women want to get into fencing more, as it helps them develop self-defence skills. We have, in fact, seen more participation from them in the recent past,” says Khan.

There are, however, issues plaguing the sport in India, such as lack of good coaching and infrastructure. Devi, who is currently training with her coach in Italy, says the facilities are far better in foreign countries. “We are improving, but the speed is slow. I want to win as many competitions as possible… So I moved to Italy (last month) with my coach and have been training here since,” she says.

To ensure the sport reaches the interiors of the country, local fencing groups and clubs, too, are working hard. NCR-based Pegasus Royal Fencing Club is one such example. Headed by Aswani Kumar, a former army officer, the club sees a lot of youngsters taking up the sport. “It’s not a very popular sport, but the interest is going up, especially among children. A lot of them have now started taking it up seriously. We need to groom the younger generation more if fencing has to reach international standards,” says Kumar.

Ice hockey: Sticking it out

It’s 4 am in Spituk village in Ladakh. The freezing cold ensures that the inhabitants are snuggling under their quilts. There is no trace of any human or animal out in the cold except a bunch of resolute young women whizzing across an ice hockey rink they have carved from the snow. It’s here that these 20 women, who today form India’s women’s ice hockey team, have been playing since the mid-2000s.

Long before they made it to the national team, though, they had christened their rink as the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation (LWIHF) to encourage not just the sport, but, through it, a sense of independence among the women of the region. “We got to know about the sport when we saw army officials playing the game in our village. Some of our brothers also joined in,” says Kunzes Angmo, president, LWIHF, and one of the members of the Indian national team. “We really liked the sport and took it up as a hobby. But slowly, we got hooked to the game,” she says.
Talking about their initial struggles, 27-year-old Rinchen Dolma, the current captain of the Indian team, says, “When we started to make the rink, people thought we were fools… But we did it.”
The remoteness of the area and the paucity of funds were major roadblocks, says Dolma. “We had no funds, no support, and a lot of scepticism from locals. They would make fun of us. We didn’t even have enough equipment and gear. We practised with whatever we had,” she says. But their efforts paid off, as news of their work and talent reached the right ears. In 2016, these women were approached by the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI), the apex body for the sport in India, to form India’s first women’s ice hockey team. “At that time, they would stick skating blades on to army boots to play,” says Harjinder Singh, secretary, IHAI, adding, “And because the cricket pads they wore couldn’t take the force of the hockey puck, they would stuff thermocol into the gaps.”

Today, the world is taking notice of these women. In 2017, they travelled to the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia held in Bangkok and put up a stellar show. The team beat Philippines 4-3 to register its first victory. Since then, there has been no looking back. After watching a YouTube video of them, in fact, four-time Canadian ice hockey Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser and Stanley Cup champion Andrew Ference decided to visit Ladakh and train them. “We have about 60 bags full of hockey equipment… for the team practising here,” says Ference, who is currently in Ladakh training the players along with Wickenheiser. Their motive, they say, is to empower young female hockey players of the region. “It’s great to see how the sport has found its way through in such a remote area. It’s commendable. We want the game to grow and if it changes the lives of these women, there is nothing better than that,” says Wickenheiser.

The equipment they have brought with them includes donations from Canada-based National Hockey League Players’ Association and various other hockey organisations around the world. “It’s a huge moment for ice hockey and these women. Their hard work is paying off. This opportunity would give a massive boost to the sport in India,” says Singh of IHAI.
“For us, the sport is a way of life. It gives us the inspiration to fight all the adversities that we face,” says Dolma.

Surfing: India’s first female professional surfer Ishita Malaviya taking on the waves

Till some time back, surfing (gliding on top of waves in the middle of the sea) was considered an entertainment sport in India. Things and perceptions, however, changed with the coming of professional surfers such as 27-year-old Ishita Malaviya and 28-year-old Tushar Pathiyan.

It was the year 2007 when Udupi-based Malaviya and her friend Pathiyan met a German exchange student and surfer who had come to Karnataka. “It was through him that we discovered an ashram, where the devotees were actually surfers from California. They were surfing at a spot that was only an hour away from us. A small chat and we found ourselves amid the waves,” says Malaviya, the country’s first female professional surfer.

Later the same year, they co-founded The Shaka Surf Club, one of the country’s first surf schools, in Udupi and took up surfing full-time. Talking about why she took up the sport, Malaviya says, “I was always an outdoors person and wanted to be in and around nature as much as possible. Surfing enables me to do that. It has changed my life. I just want to surf now and train others who feel the same way.”

Initially, though, it wasn’t that easy. They had to sell a lot of their assets to buy equipment. Their parents, too, objected. “My parents objected to me taking up surfing as a career and refused to fund me. But now, when they see me, they feel happy,” says Malaviya. Interestingly, Malaviya taught her mother to ride her first wave a few years ago.

Efforts of such enthusiasts and surfing clubs have seen the sport touch new heights in the country. Varkala-based Soul & Surf, a yoga and surfing retreat, for instance, has seen many volunteers eventually taking up surfing full-time. Nineteen-year-old Praveen Thampi is one of them. Five years ago, when Thampi first came to Varkala in Kerala to surf, he had not imagined himself as a professional surfer, teaching the sport to others. But today, he has persuaded his two cousins to join him as well. “There is nothing better than doing what you love for a living. It has been a great experience so far,” says Thampi.

Like other sports, surfing, too, faces its set of challenges. As it’s an aquatic sport, it can only take place in coastal areas. Plus, the gear is very expensive. “Currently, we have three types of surfers in India: vacation surfers (those who surf for a few days), enthusiasts (who return whenever they can) and serious surfers (who pursue it professionally),” says Rammohan Paranjape, vice-president, Surfing Federation of India, the apex body for the sport in India. “The sport has a lot of potential for a country like India. We have a huge coastline and must make use of the natural conditions. Professionals should help out enthusiasts, so that they see the scope in the sport and think of taking it up,” he says.

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