There are always those “facts” we’re made to listen to, which perpetuate certain stereotypes and misconceptions. When it comes to sport, one of the most repeated facts is that “age plays a big role” in sporting prowess. While there is some truth to the belief, pundits and fans have often underestimated athletes because they’re “too young”, or “past their prime” when performing on the biggest stage.
Breaking stereotypes is inherent to sport’s allure; history lends itself to this fact.
India’s paralympic athletes have proven themselves in this regard, becoming champions in their own right. Bereft of challenges and misperceptions, these para-athletes’ journey were arguably much more delicate to manage, needing careful management and resolve.
Every once in a while, there comes along an athlete whose career lasts a lifetime. Para-Badminton player Parul Dalsukhbhai Parmar, is one such athlete. Hailing from Gandhinagar, Gujarat, Parul was afflicted with polio at the tender age of 3, but she never let that hamper her passion for badminton. Parul is now 47 years old, and is still the number one ranked Para-Badminton player in her category, winning medals at some of the most prestigious international competitions. At her age, Parul is a true phenomenon, with only two other players ranked in the top 10 of the world being older than her. GoSports Foundation has been associated with Parul for the last 2 years, and never doubted her sheer brilliance and world-class ability even as she became older.
“Managing” Age in Sport
Through the Foundation, Parul has been supported for her competition expenses, nutritional requirements and physiotherapy, with the latter two being specially curated keeping in mind her age and the stage of life she is at. Across her career, Parul has won two gold medals at the World Championships, as well as winning two gold medals at the Asian Para Games, with more still to come, as GoSports Foundation aims to be by her side as she continues to extend her astonishing legacy.
Sometimes, an athlete’s journey may not follow the usual steps, but they still end up being world-class performers in their field. Para-Taekwondo athlete Veena Aroa, aged 45, from Punjab, has faced some extremely tough challenges to reach the position she is in today. Unlike many para-athletes, Veena’s disability wasn’t present at birth. Instead, an unfortunate incident when she was 22 led her arm to be amputated, owing to the wrongful administration of an injection. Before taking up Taekwondo, Veena actually had a productive career in athletics, representing the nation at the 2014 Asian Para Games, before deciding to switch to Taekwondo, to give her a chance of representing India at the Paralympics. When she decided to switch sports at an older age, the expectations people had were slim; however, Veena managed to put all the noise aside, believe in herself and become an international medallist in the sport. She has won medals at international competitions in Canada, Australia and more, and en route to her success, she has beaten athletes much younger than her.
GoSports Foundation has been a much needed supporting act in Veena’s journey since 2018. She has been supported for her competition expenses and nutrition, as well as for home gym equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Foundation facilitating interventions for her as per her age and life requirements.
For Kashmiri Para-Archer Rakesh Kumar, aged 35, the classic idiom “better late than never”, could not be more fitting. In a world where people say that sport should be picked up at a younger age, Rakesh has chartered his own destiny. In 2009, Rakesh was the lone survivor in a horrific car accident that left him wheelchair-bound for life. Unable to find any meaning in his life for years, Rakesh finally found his true calling in 2017 when his current coach invited him to his archery academy. From there, Rakesh has never looked back. Having taken up the sport at the age of 32, Rakesh has performed incredibly well to become one of the best para-archers in the world, currently ranked an impressive 13th. In 2019, he won a bronze medal at the Fazza World Ranking Tournament in Dubai and in the same year, he also won a quota for the nation for the 2021 Paralympics. Such achievements seemed impossible from the position Rakesh was in earlier, and wouldn’t have been possible if he second-guessed himself based on his age.
GoSports Foundation saw a spark in Rakesh and selected him for the Para Champions Programme in 2019, believing in the power of sport and its ability to change lives. Through the programme, Rakesh has been supported for his archery equipment kit, a customised wheelchair, nutritional requirements, psychology sessions and a monthly stipend. Being a late bloomer in sport, Rakesh’s support structure had to be carefully designed to enable him to perform his best during competitions, and also rest and recover well whilst at home. Now, the future looks bright for Rakesh as he excitedly looks forward to the Tokyo Paralympics to be held later this year!
Speaking on the importance of an effective support structure for athletes picking up sport at an older age, Rakesh had this to say – “At the age I started my sport, practicing it professionally can be very tough and challenging. However, having the right support system like coaches, psychologists, nutritionists and other support staff plays a pivotal role in motivating us to perform better and pushing us to do our best irrespective of our age.”
Age is a Double-Edged Sword
Just like older athletes, there are some incredibly young para athletes who have become world beaters despite their extremely young age, proving that one is never too young or inexperienced to be a sporting champion.
Para-Shooter & Jaipur born Avani Lekahra, 19, is one of India’s brightest talents in the Paralympic circuit. She suffered a car accident in 2012 which permanently affected her spinal cord, a big setback in young Avani’s life. In 2015 she decided to take up shooting, inspired by her hero, Abhinav Bindra. Despite her young age, she took to the sport like a duck to water, winning gold medals at the National Championships in 2015 & 2016, followed by a silver medal at the IPC Para Shooting World Cup, Dubai, in 2017, her coming of age performance. In 2018, she set a junior world record at the World Shooting Para Sport Championships in Korea, and one-upped that by securing a quota for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2019, at the Al Ain World Shooting Para Sports World Cup. Avani is at the age where she can still compete in junior competitions, but her maturity and talent has seen her do extremely well in senior competitions.
GoSports Foundation spotted her talent in 2018, and since then, she has been supported by the Para Champions Programme, which covers her for her rifle, equipment and most importantly, her high-performance training stints in Mumbai. For young athletes, it is essential that they receive the best guidance and mentorship, and GoSports Foundation is ensuring Avani receives just that. At just 19, the sky’s the limit for this precocious talent, as she proves time and time again that her young age is no stumbling block in her quest for greatness.
Being the confident athlete she is, Avani had this to say about how she doesn’t let the difference in experience levels with her competitors affect her on the biggest stages –
“When you start competing, you come to realise that eventually it is not about who you are competing with, it is more about how confident you are about your process. I remember when I played my first World Cup final I was the youngest at the age of 15, and there was this shooter from Great Britain who was 50 years old. Right from then I realised I just need to do my best, irrespective of who I’m competing with. Experienced athletes are who they are because of what they have achieved in the past but in the present, we all are competing for the same medal and I just try to trust my ability.”
Seems like young Para-Shooting prodigies are abundant in India right now! Avani’s compatriot, Faridabad native Manish Narwal, is another young athlete who has skyrocketed his way to glory despite his tender age of 19. He was ranked 13th in the world at the age of just 16, making him a generational talent, and from then, he’s been on a juggernaut. 2018 was a great year for him as he clinched India’s only gold medal from the shooting range at the 2018 Asian Para Games, where he broke a junior world record in the process. At just 17 years old, he won a quota for the Tokyo Olympics in 2019, and his sheer talent, ability, and desire to win makes him a great potential medal prospect for India at the global event.
Another awe-inspiring talent supported by the Para Champions Programme since 2018, who needs to be nurtured in an effective way, Manish has been provided with a personal shooting range by the Foundation, with pistols and accessories, so that he can continue to achieve the spectacular and defy the odds.
Para-Athletes’ Excellence Need Investment
In the journey’s of all these incredible athletes, the Para Champions Programme has played a pivotal role in helping change the narrative around differently-abled sports and athletes in India, by providing athletes with the right support system to build them into champions, on and off the field. The programme, which was instituted in 2015, supports 46 of India’s emerging and elite differently-abled athletes, and is funded by IndusInd Bank and Sony Pictures Network India, through their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.
India’s Paralympic talents truly are prime examples of why age is just a number in sport, and no athlete should feel restricted or confined due to their age. Sports has the unique ability to cancel out other external factors of life and give everyone a fair chance at success. More than anything, hard work, determination, and a will to win are essential to succeed in sport, while having the right support system and entourage can help athletes reach unbelievable heights. By not adhering to the stereotypes surrounding age, sport has changed the lives of these athletes and turned them into champions and role models. However, it is imperative that every athlete has the right support system around them, to help them become true change-makers in India and create a legacy for themselves. GoSports Foundation works tirelessly to identify talented athletes, and give them the wide range of holistic support needed to strive for sporting excellence. Their work continues to churn out sporting champions across different ages and disciplines, ensuring that India moves forward in its journey as a sporting nation. These Paralympic athletes are role models to people across the country, and are proud believers and living examples that age is merely just a number.