The 54-member Paralympic contingent of India has been sweeping medals at the Tokyo Paralympics 2020. Yesterday, India won an unprecedented feat of 5 medals – 2 gold, 2 silver and a bronze – in a single day. The winners also included the country’s first-ever Paralympic gold medal-winning woman athlete in shooter Avani Lekhara. The 19-year-old prodigy equalled the world record by shooting a score of 249.6 in the R2 – Women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 event to clinch the gold. In the process, she also became the first-ever Indian woman to strike Olympic gold in any of the Olympic events, whether it be Summer, Winter or Youth Olympics.
While Avani scripted history as the Indian national anthem once again played in Tokyo, her coach, Suma Shirur, a former Olympian and Arjuna awardee herself, quietly baked in the success of her student. In the process, Suma also fulfilled her long lost dream of conquering an Olympic medal. What Pullela Gopichand is to Indian badminton, Suma Shirur will now be to Indian shooting as she is remembered as the woman who trained Avani Lekhara to golden glory.
Avani Lekhara – The untold story of her historic success and the success of her unsung coach Suma Shirur
History was created at Tokyo Paralympics, as Avani Lekhara won a gold medal for India! – pic.twitter.com/Q0TBXvxGsD
— Animesh Pandey 🇮🇳 (@LaffajPanditIND) August 30, 2021
Shirur took to Twitter to share the success of Avani and tweeted, “GOLD IT IS! As a coach couldn’t have been any more proud of @AvaniLekhara and her performance today! India’s first woman to win a gold medal at Olympics or #Paralympics & with a world record. Surely more to come from her in the future too! #Praise4Para @ParalympicIndia @Tokyo2020”
GOLD IT IS! As a coach couldn’t have been any more proud of @AvaniLekhara and her performance today! India’s first woman to win a gold medal at Olympics or #Paralympics & with a world record. Surely more to come from her in the future too! #Praise4Para@ParalympicIndia @Tokyo2020 pic.twitter.com/LJMC1wambf
— Suma Shirur OLY (@SumaShirur) August 30, 2021
As an Olympian, Suma had almost created history, when she reached the finals of Women’s 10 m. air rifle at Athens Olympics in 2004. However, lack of experience and the dearth of backroom staff overwhelmed Suma and she finished last out of the 8 finalists. Suma attempted to make a strong comeback, but somehow, she had lost that touch. However, she didn’t give up and focused on training the new students.
She was appointed as the High-Performance coach of the Indian junior shooting team and Avani started training under her in 2018, at the Lakshya Shooting Academy in Mumbai. Suma, a hard taskmaster but with empathy made sure to treat Avani like any other athlete so that she could be battle-hardened for the challenges to come.
“I treated her like other shooters at my academy. When she became a part of our academy, we got certain changes done to make the place para athlete-friendly. Working on her technique was the main focus as being technically sound at events like Paralympics matters the most,” said Suma.
While Avani won the medal, those who witnessed the event would recall that she was under tremendous pressure in the beginning. Talking about how Avani was not in the best frame of mind and how she calmed her down, Suma said, “She wanted a great start but it was very shaky and that disturbed her. She was taking breaks and kept calling me. I calmed her down and finally by the end of the second series I could see that she was getting into her rhythm and the fear of competing in such a big stage was gone.”
Shirur told Avani to ‘focus on the technique’. “It was a very technical chat and I added that you are very courageous as well, so you can do it,”
And if one had any doubts on the commitment of Shirur to her students, the academy that she founded for training shooters has the apt mission line: “Live for the glory of the game. Strive for perfection. Create and instill confidence, with sportsmanship spirit”
Shirur’s fire to train athletes to become the best version of themselves has been the reason why Avani has managed to break the world record at such a young age. During an interview last year, Shirur had remarked:
“I would say that as an athlete we are never satisfied, we always want to win, we want to win as many competitions as we can. That hasn’t changed even today. With my juniors, once we got out for a match there’s something inside me where I want to win as many matches as I can. Irrespective of whether my juniors become future Olympians or not, I really want them to have the qualities that Olympians have in them. I want to see that in all my athletes, I want an Olympian inside of them whether they actually make it or not.”
It always takes an entire village to forge an Olympic winning athlete. It is a collective process and while we applaud Avani for her subliminal performance, some praise should be directed to Shirur’s way as well. With Avani set to compete in three more events, we can be optimistic for more medals from the dynamic student-coach duo.