Hailing from the beautiful hill station of Manali, Aanchal Thakur etched her names in the history books when she became the first Indian to win the nation’s first-ever skiing medal at the prestigious Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup in Turkey. While Aanchal has grabbed attention now, her brother Himanshu is also one of India’s foremost skiers and has competed in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
However, few Indians know that their event – alpine skiing, which involves skiing around flags or markers – has a long history of Indian participation – longer than any other winter sport.
Fifty-four years ago in Innsbruck, Austria, alpine skier Jeremy Bujakowski, a Poland-born Indian citizen, became the first person ever to represent India at the Winter Olympics.
Here’s the little-known story of this forgotten sportsman.
Better known by his nickname Jerry, Jeremy John Bujakowski was born on March 30, 1939, in Druskininkai (a riverside town in southern Lithuania) to Polish couple, Halina Korolec-Bujakowski and Stanisław Bujakowski. His parents were avid globe-trotters and had travelled by motorcycle from Druskininkai to Shanghai between 1934 and 1936.
A few years later, Stanislaw found work in the burgeoning oil industry of India and the family moved to India. Jerry, who was just seven when he came to India, joined St Joseph’s North Point school in Darjeeling. Subsequently becoming a naturalised citizen of India, he graduated from Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College before leaving for the United States for higher studies.
It was during his time in the US, particularly in Idaho, that Jerry was introduced to skiing and fell in love with the exhilarating sport. Undeterred by the language barriers and occasional cultural shocks he faced during his stay, he poured his blood and sweat into excelling at alpine skiing.
In fact, he became so good in skiing and so fast that he was offered a full scholarship at the University of Denver. In 1963, Jerry decided to compete at the Winter Olympics and etch his name in the annals of history — till then, nobody from India had ever competed in the Winter Games.
The next year found Jerry at the Winter Olympics (being held at Innsbrook, Austria), standing next to a young Jean-Claude Killy and Egon Zimmerman as they stared down at a two-mile-long gnarly snow chute nicknamed the “Course of Fear.”
Not the one to give up easily, Jerry did compete in the incredibly tough race.
However, his maiden tryst with the Winter Olympics ended when he suffered a serious accident that threatened to cut short his career in skiing — it left him with a broken back, a fractured leg, concussions and internal haemorrhages.
With four complicated surgeries over the next 18 months, it was an uphill battle to complete recovery. But the tenacious skiier persevered, eager to regain his fitness, resume his training and prepare for the next edition of the global competition. And so he did, with one ski and his left leg under a cast!
In 1968, Jerry returned to represent India at the Winter Olympics being held at Grenoble in France, competing again in the downhill, slalom, and giant slalom events of alpine skiing. In downhill and giant slalom, he finished with the rank of 53 and 65 respectively. Being the sole Indian athlete at the event, he was also India’s ‘Chef de Mission’ ( head of the nation’s delegation)!
Interestingly, Jerry was also a surfing enthusiast and raised eyebrows in the 1968 World Surfing Championships (where he represented India) when he wore sneakers while surfing as a protection against sea urchins!
Following Jerry’s Olympics appearance in 1968, India had to wait a good 20 years before its athletes participated in the Winter Olympics. In 1988, Gul Dev, Kishir Rahtna and Shailaja Kumar, (the first Indian woman to participate in the Winter Olympics) were a part of the three-member Indian contingent that competed in alpine skiing.
As India’s latest contingent readies itself to participate in the Winter Olympics 2018 (scheduled to take place between February 9 and February 25 at PyeongChang, South Korea), its time we acknowledged the man who took such the painstaking efforts to make India become a Winter Olympic nation.