It was a strange day. I was just 17, unaware of the impact of my achievements, when I was told I was the new world number one women's archer. The best in the world? Me?
I had taken up archery only four years earlier, more as a means to escape from poverty, rather than for the love of the game. Frankly, I did not know what archery even was, but I had quickly grown to love it. Once I realised I had a natural talent for it, I become obsessed with the game and I was playing because I loved it, not to win. But my sheer passion, joy and naivety somehow had catapulted me into a winning spree that I did not understand, nor was I prepared for.
In four years my life had gone from sorrow to success. When did all this happen? Let me take you back...
I was born on the roadside in Ratu village, Jharkhand - India's second poorest state. My father drove a rickshaw and my mother was a nurse in a government hospital, but her salary was never paid on time. She is one of those rare women who worked in my village. A village where women were taken out of school at an early age and where my classmates were forced into arranged marriages in their teens. My uncle subscribed to similar ideals. He would often beat my mother for being a workingwoman. She took it in her stride and made sure her daughter was treated differently.
Our financial situation was desperate. Struggling to make ends meet we often didn't have enough food to go around. To lessen the burden on my loving parents and two siblings I chose to leave home. I was 12.
I heard about a Government backed academy where if selected, girls were assured of one meal a day and a roof over their heads, and most importantly it was free of cost. My father was firmly against girls playing sports, to be fair there were no examples of this in my village and usually girls simply helped around the house, cooked and cleaned. "Playing" was only for boys. Finally after many tears, he agreed to let me try out for this academy.
At the trails they handed me a bamboo bow and arrow. I had never held one and didn't know how to aim or shoot. Needless to say, I failed miserably and they rejected me! I was devastated, and begged them to give me a three month grace period – if I didn't improve they could send me back home. My life truly began the day I persuaded the academy to let me in, despite my lack of knowledge or skills. It was the start of an ongoing journey that had its fair share of ups and downs...
Where was I? Oh yes - world number one at 17. My roller coaster of a life so far was about to take an unpleasant turn. Unknown for years, I was suddenly the darling of the Indian media. Articles, accolades and praises for my achievements were the order of the day. But what the media was truly gifted at was putting pressure on my inexperienced shoulders. I was told that anything less than a gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012 would be a disappointment. I had a billion people's hopes and dreams to fulfill.
In a nation where girls are told that their place is in the kitchen I had changed a perspective in my own small way.
I was from a small village and had barely learned what the Olympics were about and here I was told I would let down a nation if I didn't perform. Unprepared and with no mental coach to help me condition my mind, I choked. I was seventeen, labelled a failure and a disappointment to the country. It was the worst day of my life. I lost hope, wanted to quit and fell into a deep depression. I stopped believing in myself, I did not want to pick up my bow and I had lost that pure joy for the sport amid the pressure.
A visit to where it all began, my first academy, changed it all. At the academy I met young girls aged 12 and 13, who had tried out and started playing archery because of my story. Hearing that I was supporting my family financially had given their parents the courage to send their daughters to play sports and not stick to what was safe and familiar. I was their inspiration. Being a role model was something I never envisioned for myself and here were these girls saying that they wanted to be like me. I had motivated them to dream big, aspire and strive to achieve the impossible.
In a nation where girls are told that their place is in the kitchen I had changed a perspective in my own small way. A friend said that if my life story inspires even one girl-child in India then it has been a life worth living. I had childhood friends call me up crying, as they were stuck at home, married with children and felt worthless, as their in-laws wouldn't allow them to work. They wanted me to help them... I knew I might not be able to save them from their situation, but I could help the next generation by not giving up and get back in the game.
"Ladies first"- a term I am yet to fully understand. We use it in so many contexts and yet we never use it where it counts the most. We never use it when it comes to women in the workplace, women in sports or women in what are traditionally male dominated areas. We use it incorrectly for mundane matters and the time for us to use it where it is most needed is upon us. The time for ladies first is now.
I was a little girl who dreamed of one day getting onto an airplane, I fulfilled that dream and had travelled the world. Now I have bigger dreams of being the first Indian woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal! I performed much better in Rio 2016 and I am working toward winning in Tokyo 2020. Sport has taught me an important life lesson, to never give up and keep fighting no matter what. It also has the ability to inspire confidence, self-esteem, team building, endurance and gender equality. Most importantly my goal is to change the face of women's sport in India. A change so far-reaching that the impact would make it impossible for us to go back to the antiquated mindsets of the past and present.
'Ladies First', a documentary about Deepika Kumari's journey, is on Netflix from March 8th.
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