This article has been sponsored by Welspun Foundation for Health & Knowledge.
Early mornings, endless hours of training, aching wounds and countless sacrifices — being an athlete is much more than the medals and the glory that comes with it.
But for a woman, these challenges double down when discrimination and gender stereotypes come into play. At that point, it is not only about the backbreaking hard work but also the unrelenting perseverance to break the glass ceiling and fight for the opportunity they truly deserve.
To ensure that such talent is not lost due to lack of access or opportunity, Welspun Foundation for Health & Knowledge started the Welspun Super Sport Women Program (WSSW) to empower female athletes in India. Their focus is to guide and promote promising young sportswomen through mentorships and financial assistance across the various stages of their athletic journeys right from the grassroots, national to even international levels.
At its core, the foundation honours and celebrates the unshakable spirit of young female athletes who have braved challenges to emerge victorious. Here are some of them:
1. Palak Kohli
Almost five years ago, while attempting to play handball with her friends in school, a teacher had cautioned Palak Kohli about going into sports because of her birth deformity in her left hand.
“She said that I might hurt my other arm as well and that it was not something meant for me. I was to concentrate on studies and later use quotas for the disabled for college applications and then a job. The idea that someone else decides a fate for me or tells me what I am meant to do, deeply bothered me,” says Palak, who till then had almost no exposure to sports.
A year later in 2017, she started training to play badminton and in 2020 became the world’s youngest para-badminton player to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics.
Talking about what changed her life, the 18-year-old para-athlete recalls, “I didn’t choose badminton, it was as if the game chose me. One day, while coming out of a mall with my mother, a stranger approached us inquiring about my left arm. He then went on to tell me about para-badminton and how I could be perfect for it. He shared his contact for consideration and left. Although it was a random incident, it stayed with me because this stranger was the first person to say that I had the potential to be more. Months later, I approached him and this man, Gaurav Khanna agreed to coach me and change my life forever.”
Today, she is the sports captain in the same school and has been training hard to excel in the upcoming 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.
2. Aarti and Jyoti Patil
Aarti and Jyoti, Mumbai’s wonder twin swimmers who have won 55 national medals at the young age of just 23, agree that being born into a family that wholeheartedly supports a strenuous career as an athlete is a blessing.
“We were about 9 -months-old when our father first introduced us to swimming. He is a great swimmer and in 2003 he completed a sea marathon in 13 hours and 10 minutes in Greece. He has always been an inspiration to us and watching him, we tried to accomplish a milestone by sea-swimming when we were just 4-years-old,” says Aarti, who has won 30 national medals so far.
In the Patil family, where every single member, from the parents to the children are ace swimmers, ‘swimming’ has grown to be more than just a sport. It is a way of life cultivated with discipline, hard work, patience and the spirit of sportsmanship.
“Our father works as a constable in Mumbai Police. Every day, after completing his night duty, he returns in the morning to dedicate himself to our training that starts from 6.30 am and continues till 11.00 am. The training starts again in the evening from 6.00 pm till 8.30 pm. This has been our constant routine for several years now and it is this discipline that has ensured all the wins we have managed so far,” adds Jyoti, who has 25 national medals to her name.
3. Suvarna Raj
“At every point in my life, I have had to fight — be it with my educational institutes to provide accessible spaces, or even the society to demand inclusivity. It’s a constant effort to create a better world for everyone,” says 39-year-old international para-athlete Suvarna Raj.
An inspiration for many across the country, she performs several roles—a mother, a para table tennis player, an activist, a social worker and an accessibility counsellor—all of which culminate into making her a true changemaker. Through her work in these different sectors, she has and continues to create a lasting impact.
“I knew that my life would be difficult at a very young age. I was two when polio-affected both my legs. Although that meant that I would be in a wheelchair, it didn’t discourage me from pursuing my passion for sports. My parents had admitted me to a hostel at a very young age, and throughout the whole decade that I spent there, I continued to work on myself. I would always remind myself that it was difficult but not impossible,” adds Suvarna, who has won several international accolades, including two medals at the Thailand Para Table Tennis Open 2013.
Not limiting her work to the court, she has spent several years advocating for accessibility in public spaces. Her efforts in this route won her the National Women Excellence Award in 2013 for Sports, the Karamveer Puraskar by ICONGO in 2015 and the prestigious National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) — Mphasis Universal Design Award (MUDA) in 2017.
“I am my own role model. When others doubt my potential, it fuels me further to do better and prove them wrong!” she adds.
The exemplary stories of these young women are testimony to the invisible battles won with sheer determination and courage. This legacy of positive change and inspiration is what WSSW, through its #LeapBeyond campaign, is hoping to create. It is a scholarship program that aims to empower the next generation of sportswomen to take the leap of success. Currently, they are providing scholarships to 27 female athletes from 14 different sports disciplines.
With #LeapBeyond the program has opened applications for sportswomen to apply and win a scholarship. Apply for the program here.