Haryana’s 95-year-old Bhagwani Devi Dagar recently bagged three gold medals in the 9th World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships held in Torun, Poland after her grandsons recognised her potential in sports and trained her.
“I will play as long as I live,” says 95-year-old Bhagwani Devi Dagar. The expression of determination on her wrinkled face adorned with a red bindi and gold earrings stands testament to her words.
On 4 April, 2023, she landed in Delhi along with her coach and grandsons, Vikas and Vinit Dagar, after winning three gold medals at the recently concluded 9th World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships held in Torun, Poland.
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“Mai bahut khush hu maine apne desh ke liye ye kiya (I am delighted to be able to make my country proud), I will keep on playing,” Bhagwani Devi tells The Better India.
The athlete was able to bag golds in 60-metre running, shot put, and discus throw. She ran the 60-metre sprint in 36.59 seconds and produced a shot put throw of 2.93 m and a discus throw of 4.67 m.
Years of misfortunes and grief
Born and brought up in 1928 in a small village called Kherka in Haryana, Bhagwani Devi was married off at a very young age.
“At that time, there were no schools or education for girls, so my parents married me off at 12. I moved to Malikpur village with my husband,” recalls Bhagwani Devi.
In a heavily accented Haryanvi Hindi, she continues to narrate the struggles she faced in her early life.
“Since there was no school and no education, I spent a lot of time playing in the fields before marriage. My favourite game to play was Kabaddi with other girls from the village,” she informs.
After six years of her marriage, Bhagwani Devi, at the age of 18, was carrying her first child, a son. The baby boy passed away after a month due to some medical issues.
Three years later, she gave birth to another baby, this time a little girl. While her home was filled with joy once again, it did not stay for long.
“I was four months pregnant with my third child — a boy — when my husband died. I was devastated,” she shares, adding, “I did not know what to do or how to raise the children on my own.”
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Bhagwani Devi was now 30, widowed, and without any means of feeding her family. And then things took a turn for the worst when her daughter died the same year.
Not being able to remember the reasons behind her children’s death, Bhagwani Devi only remembered the grief.
“I was devastated, but I had to pick myself up for my little boy. I did not have much family to help me out except for an elder sister. She stood beside me in the tough times. She would take care of my son, and I would toil in the field,” she says.
She worked hard and earned enough money to support herself and her son. Years of hard work paid off when her son got a government job as a clerk at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
The rise of an unstoppable ‘dadi’
Always interested in playing sports, Bhagwani Devi never got a chance to explore them due to the circumstances of her life.
“I first noticed her interest in sports when she would tell us about the games she used to play as a kid. She would be mesmerised by the various trophies my brother Vikas, a para-athlete would bring home,” says Vinit, her grandson.
Noticing her interest in sports, Vikas, the elder grandson brought a shot put ball home.
“He asked dadi (paternal grandmother) to throw it, but she did not throw it saying that she is tired and wants to sleep. The next morning she went up to him, asked for the ball and threw it. The throw she had was amazing. She did not know any techniques, but still, she could do it just like she was born with the talent,” he shares.
“This is when we both realised her potential and decided to train her,” he adds.
Bhagwani Devi says that the event was just the beginning. “I did not know what it meant and if I could actually play, but my sporting career began at 94,” she says.
While the grandsons wanted to train their dadi well, they were also concerned about her health.
“She underwent bypass surgery in 2007, so we did not want to overburden her. But her enthusiasm encouraged us. She told us that she can do it,” says Vinit.
Talking about the training process for a person her age, he adds, “For a person in her age, it is important to focus on her health. The training is not very extensive. She walks two times a day for about 3 km and eats a healthy diet. We teach her techniques of throwing the ball, the various hand positions, and that is it.”
“We need to be careful as her heart is weak, and we cannot put a lot of pressure on her,” he says.
The decision of taking Bhagwani Devi to Poland was initially received with scepticism. “People do not really know that masters championships exist. Age was a very important factor, and we were scared thinking ‘What if something happens to her?’ However, our unstoppable dadi ji clearly said, ‘I am ready. If I die bring me back to my country, to my home.’ This motivated us, so we took her,” he says.
Within a few months of training, Bhagwani Devi had won three golds at the Delhi State Masters Athletics Championship held in April last year. She also won three more golds at the 42nd National Masters Athletics Championships held between 26 April and 2 May, 2022 in Chennai.
Ready for more championships, Vinit says that his dadi is more enthusiastic than ever now.
“If her health is good, we are planning to take her to Masters Asian Championship in November. Hopefully, she will make our country proud again,” he says.
Bhagwani Devi, on the other hand, has become an inspiration to women in her village. Unhinged by all the appreciation, she looks at the world with her simple, humble and down-to-earth attitude.
“I like to play sports, and that is what I do. I walk a lot to stay fit, do my own work, and not be a bother to anyone. This is the rule I live by that I will follow and keep playing till my last breath,” she says.
Edited by Pranita Bhat
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