Deepika Kumari, from Jharkhand, has already had an offer to act in a film. The poster girl of Indian archery was all set to star in a Hindi movie, Bisahi.
She was to play the lead in a story revolving around the evil practice of witch-hunting. “Initially, I was very excited to star in the movie. I was struggling with my form and I wanted to give acting a try. The shooting was being planned in the month of March 2018, but then I realised if I plunged into the world of celluloid, I would lose focus on archery. It was an important year and I desperately wanted to turn around my fortunes in the sport. So, I finally rejected the offer.”
She did, indeed, reject the offer, but what were the circumstances that prompted one of the most talented Indian archers to think of something other than her sport, one she had given herself to?
“When you are not winning for a long time, negativity creeps in and you are shrouded in self-doubt,” Deepika Kumari says.
For Deepika, it was just the start. At just fifteen, she won the 11th Youth World Archery Championships in Ogden City, Utah, US, in 2009. And a year later, two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, one in the women’s individual recurve event, and the other in the women’s recurve team event with Dola Banerjee and Bombayla Devi Laishram, firmly put her in the mindspace of fans and sports aficionados alike, as she emerged from being just the “next big thing” in archery.
And when she struck the bullseye for her first Archery World Cup gold medal in individual recurve at Antalya, Turkey, the expectations of a medal-thirsty nation came tumbling out as all and sundry declared her to be a sure-shot medal contender at the 2012 London Olympics.
Ranked world no. 1 in the lead-up to the London Olympics in 2012, Deepika crashed out in the first round, beaten by Amy Oliver of Great Britain. Unable to best the windy conditions and her fever that she carried into her match, Deepika would face many disparaging reports in the Indian media that trashed her abilities altogether.
Stringing together some good as well as disappointing performances over the next three years, Deepika again became the centre of attention as in April 2016, she equalled the world record in the women’s recurve event. And the Rio Olympics later that year started well too, as she eased through the first two rounds. But a poor show in the round of 16 against Chinese Taipei’s Tan Ya-ting meant she would exit another Olympics empty-handed. And it would be a lonely road back home, as the disparaging media, the federation officials, and everyone who mattered deserted the lonely archer as she sought to reflect on what had gone wrong.
In those six years since the Antalya high, through many World Cup stages, World Cup finals, the two summer Olympics, one Commonwealth and one Asian Games, the gold medal continued to elude her. The six-year-long drought finally ended when she clinched gold in the recurve event at the World Cup at Salt Lake City in the US in June 2018.
What had gone wrong in the past?
“Maybe I could not cope with the pressure and made mistakes at crucial junctures of the competition, allowing the momentum to shift. Mental strength will be my main focus for the rest of my career,” says Deepika.
Former international archer Dola Banerjee who participated with Deepika also agrees on this. ‘She is a very hard worker with great technique. But the new scoring system puts a lot of emphasis on the mental strength of an archer, and that is where many of our Indian archers like Deepika are losing out,’ she says. The earlier scoring system during head-to-head match-ups included twelve arrows being shot by each of the two participants and the top scorer going on to win the match. This has been replaced by matches of five sets.
Each set consists of three arrows and the winner of the set gets two points. Each of the archers gets one point apiece for a drawn set.
‘The fact that you are starting a new set after every three shots means the opponent can make comebacks at any time, and one has to be very strong mentally,’ says Dola. There are two things in international sports. The first thing is having the talent and the second thing is honing the talent. The second aspect becomes more important if athletes come up from challenging and underprivileged conditions. Deepika’s life is one such story.
Born to Shivnath Mahto, an autorickshaw driver, and Geeta Mahto, who worked as a nurse at Ranchi Medical College, Kumari grew up under a thatched hut in her village of Ram Chatti, about 15 km from Ranchi. There was never enough food on the table, not to mention discord within the family. Hers had become a life filled with the inevitable struggle. Starving, and with the noble intention of lessening the burden on her parents, a twelve-year-old Deepika left her village. On a cousin’s recommendation, she joined an archery academy.
“I got interested in archery in the year 2007 at the age of thirteen. I had gone to the training centre in Seraikela, Kharsawan, which is just outside Jamshedpur. Initially, I was not that interested in the sport, and in fact my cousin used to practise archery there. I had just heard of the sport. I used to watch the sport, and through that, and while staying at my cousin’s place, slowly my interest piqued and I started practising archery.”
Her only experience in the sport at this point was with homemade bamboo bows and arrows. More than the sport per se, a roof over her head and three meals a day were something she couldn’t turn away from.
“After I trained in Saraikela, for a year, I got selected to join the JRD Tata Sports Complex, where I train now. I have two coaches, Dharmendra Tewari and Purnima Mahato. They have been my coaches since I joined the JRD Tata Sports Complex. My coaches not only trained me in archery but have also trained me to handle life. For example, when they teach us about confidence in archery, it applies to my life as well. It was that confidence which helped me perform in front of a crowd or talk to people I didn’t know. All the principles I acquire as a sportsperson automatically apply to my personal life as well,” she says.
Deepika is the classic case of how sports brings about change in one’s personal life. Hers is also the example of how someone from humble origins can develop the requisite skill, through ardour and tenacity and compete at the international stage.
“As such, difficulty in playing and performance does not occur. But there are times when I am not able to perform well. That affects the way people perceive me. They either get negative or stop talking to me. They question my work; complain that I am not working hard enough, that I do not have enough focus. They say I don’t concentrate, and that’s why my performance is dipping. They start questioning and doubting whether I will win medals again. What they don’t realise is that this is a sport and no one person can win every single time or perform the same always,” Deepika says, further elaborating on this.
The rise from humble origins, the mindset attuned where failure is not an option, playing the sport about which there is ignorance all around, lack of a setup where her skills could be honed and weaknesses worked out – all these combined together to get her into a situation where she thought of quitting.
“In the last few months, I have been working with the mental conditioning coach Mugdha Bavare and she played a key role in helping me to get out of the rut. The thought of giving it all up crossed my mind, but the love of archery, the determination to fight back kept me going in spite of these difficult times.”
What is the difference in the way she tackled her problems then and now? “Now from my side I just let it be, because I do not know those people. Explaining my stance is not an option because it is incorrectly perceived as excuses. I have learnt to make peace with the talk and just focus on improving my skill. I work harder and try to answer such doubts through my work. I do not let this negativity affect my work,” she says.
Excerpted with permission from She Dared: Women In Indian Sports, Abhishek Dubey and Sanjeeb Mukherjea, Rupa Publications.