From sleepless fifth place to gold-getter: How shooting made a champ of Avani Lekhara

Avani Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win gold at the Paralympics in Tokyo. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Avani Lekhara didn't sleep the night she finished fifth. It was five years ago at a School Games competition alongside non-disabled shooters. All night she stewed over the question of why she hadn't won. It was a touch more serious than her father, Praveen, had intended her to get about the sport.

In Tokyo on Monday, in her aviator specs and sunbeam of a smile, the 19 year-old held up a gold disc around her neck by its bright red ribbon and attempted the knotty task of putting emotions, journey and her march into history into a concise post-medal byte: "I'm very happy. I can't explain how happy I am," she would chuckle, searching for words. She is the first Indian female shooter to win a gold medal at an Olympic or Paralympic Games. Her score of 249.6 in women's 10m air rifle standing (SH1), equaled the world record and broke the Paralympic record.

A road accident had taken the then chirpy, social 11 year-old from school debate halls and dance lessons to a hospital bed for three months in 2012. She suffered a lesion in the topmost section of her lumbar spine column which led to traumatic paraplegia and losing control of her body, waist down. She went from being surrounded by a band of friends at all times to shutting herself in her room for days on end. It's when her father, a Rajasthan state government employee, decided to nudge her into sport. Avani moved swiftly from archery, swimming and athletics, before shooting made her pause. "She had decent scores even in her early days in the sport," he says, "She liked that feeling of being able to do well in something and kept going back to the shooting range (in Jagatpura, Jaipur)."

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Praveen's idea was for sport to act as the vehicle of restoration in Avani's social life, but the teen galloped towards loftier goals. "She would practice for eight hours a day sometimes and I would ask her why she put herself through so much trouble. Her response was always about wanting to become the first woman Paralympic gold medalist. I was glad she was sure about her goal but a part of me worried about how much she would put her body through, to get there."

Much like Praveen did on Monday when he heard from his wife, who is accompanying Avani in Tokyo as care assistant, of his daughter needing to use the washroom during the competition. A perfunctory task that can be onerous for Avani because of her loss of bowel and bladder control. "My wife learnt how to use the catheter after Avani's accident so that she could help her," says Praveen, "The toilet was a little away from the shooting hall so they rushed and though it's been some time now, using a catheter is always an uncomfortable experience. All I could think of then was if it would mess up Avani's mind. But she just didn't let anything come between her and the gold medal today."

Part of it had to do with her mental strength on the day. One that she spoke of after her medal, throwing in a smattering of key shooter-esque phrases like "focusing on oneself" and "following the process". For a year now Avani has been working with sports psychologist Vaibhav Agashe, engaged by the not-for-profit GoSports Foundation who've been supporting Avani since 2016.

"Earlier she would have distracting thoughts during competition. It would affect her during key moments," says Agashe, "So we decided to start at the base to make sure she has a thorough idea about what her process is supposed to be in a competition hall. We found that the clarity in her head about what step follows what, and of her technique still needed some work. We started by having her write down in order every little thing she is supposed to do after entering the hall and visualize each step and develop an awareness of every muscle. The idea was not to visualize winning or standing on the podium but focus right until the last shot and be ready for one more shot, if the situation arises. The other area of focus was her breathing in tense moments. Earlier she would breathe a bit shallow or would hyperventilate and take in too much breath. She practiced belly breathing, which helped reduce disruption in rifle movement."

Avani has been training under coach Suma Shirur, making around three trips a year from Jaipur to the Lakshya academy in Mumbai. She is the lone para athlete among the 152 trainees and the washrooms at the facility run by Suma and her husband Siddharth were redesigned to suit Avani.

"When we began working together in 2017, she was struggling with a lot of self-doubt. As a coach to a teen student you sometimes have to double up as a parent, that's what I tried to do too. I had her training alongside other students, rather than one-on-one or special sessions," says Suma, who is in Tokyo, with Avani now, "I told her I don't want you to look at just para scores but the regular scores and just competing in training with everyone else I think rubbed off well on her. The full extent of what she's achieved today still hasn't sunk in for her, I think. It will only happen once she lands in India."

Avani has three more events to compete in. Her father, back in Jaipur, has already had the busiest day of his life. He's been distributing sweets, joining in the drum beating celebrations, been congratulated by strangers and well-wishers, hugged by neighbors and relatives, and his phone has been ringing off the hook. When I took her to the range five years ago," he says, "I never imagined Avani would grow so serious about the sport one day." She still finds time for dance and is a huge fan of K-dramas. "That accident changed her. It turned her into a gold-getter."