Life turned upside down for Avani Lekhara pretty early when a car accident rendered her immobile as an 11-year-old but what the tragedy could not do was take away her and her family’s resolve to be a notch above the circumstances.
Lekhara sustained severe spinal cord injuries in the accident in 2012 but she took it upon herself to steer the course, helped generously by her father’s insistence that she take up shooting.
A trainee of former Olympian shooter Suma Shirur, Lekhara became India’s first woman gold medallist at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo on Monday when she shot a total of 249.6 in the 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1.
In doing so, the 19-year-old shooter from Jaipur created a new Paralympics record and also equalled the world record. She wasn’t quite taken by the idea of being a full-time shooter but after reading Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography ‘A Shot At Glory’, her deal with the precision sport was sealed.
Partly inspired by the story of India’s first individual Olympic gold-medallist besides her own hard work and dedication, Lekhara crafted her own piece of history at her very first Paralympic appearance.
As the Tokyo Paralympics approached, the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic only complicated the journey to glory, badly affecting her essential physiotherapy routine.
“As someone with a spinal cord disability, I don’t have any feeling below my waist. I still need to exercise my legs every day,” Lekhara says.
“I used to have a physio who would come to my home daily to help me exercise and stretch my legs. Since then it’s my parents who have to help me with those exercises. They do the best they can.”
At the time she was paralysed waist down, studies seemed to be the only option but life had other ideas in store for her. Once she picked up the rifle during the 2015 summer vacations, the vivacious woman from Jaipur did pretty well and then began a journey that would one day see her script history by claiming the biggest prize at the sport’s grandest stage.
Going through the pages of Bindra’s autobiography only strengthened her resolve to realise her goal once she decided on one, which happened after her initial success in state and national level competitions.
Ranked fifth in the world, Lekhara is set to compete in three more events — mixed air rifle prone, women’s 50m rifle 3 positions and mixed 50m rifle prone.
Speaking from Tokyo, an elated Lekhara said: “I feel so happy and grateful right now for this medal. I can’t explain how I feel. I feel right on top of the world.
“I dedicate my medal to all the Indians. It is just the start. I have a lot of competition days ahead and more medals to come. I have three more matches and am focusing on them and giving my 100 per cent.”
Having gone through a lot of ups and downs in her career, Lekhara said she did not want to dwell on the past or think about the future.
“I just stay in the present. I was thinking about one shot at a time today,” she said of her gold medal performance.
She had earlier won a bronze medal at the WSPS World Cup in Bangkok, 2017 and bettered the colour of the medal to silver in the next two World Cups in Osijek, Croatia in 2019 and Al Ain, UAE this year.
Shirur is with her in Tokyo after guiding Indian rifle shooters Divyansh Singh Panwar and Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar during the preceding Olympics.
“This was the ultimate goal and I had to be with Avani. I am very happy that she has won gold and it was all worth the effort,” Shirur said.
Going into the details the well-known coach added, “We have been preparing Avani for the last couple of years with skill and technical aspects. But in Paralympics, it is how well you can manage your emotions, how well you perform technically under pressure.
“The start was very very tough. I was sitting behind her, had to go in a couple of times, give her a lot of encouraging words. After 20 shots, she got the courage.
“It took time but she did not give up. She believed in herself and fought it out. It took a while but ultimately the inner desire to win has seen her climb on top of the podium.”
Lekhara edged out 2016 Rio Games gold-medallist Cuiping Zhang of China who clinched the silver medal with a total of 248.9 at the Asaka Shooting Range.
World number one and reigning world campion Iryna Shchetnik of Ukraine took home the bronze with an effort of 227.5.
Giving a peek into her days at training, Shirur said, “The range at the Lakshya Shooting Club is on the first floor but we made sure that she had no difficulty in coming and going as all the shooters of the club gelled with her so much that she was carried up the stairs in her wheelchair every day by her shooting colleagues.
“She is the darling of the club with her enchanting smile and demeanour. The women’s restroom at the club was remodelled to include para-friendly features overnight before Avani’s arrival on the first day.”
While Lekhara did 10-15 day-long high-performance personal sessions with Shirur three or four times a year, the restrictions imposed due to COVID since last year did not deter her from improving and achieving her goals.
“The COVID posed fresh challenges and restricted travel but Avani kept at it training at home and in regular touch with me through Zoom call sessions and long phone calls,” Shirur said.