India won a record 19 medals at the Paralympics earlier this year, easily their best ever in history. To put that into perspective, India had won a total of 12 medals in 11 previous editions. Of the 12, there were 4 gold medals. They bettered that too in Tokyo with 5.
In a year that featured a litany of great para sports performances by Indians, there were plenty of strong contenders for the para athlete of 2021. While any of them would have been deserving, Avani Lekhara ultimately wins it for creating history and being a pathbreaker for Indian para shooting.
Lekhara goes where no Indian woman has gone before
30 August, 2021 will always be a gold-embossed day in Indian sporting history. It marked the first time India won two golds on a single day at the Paralympics. India won a total of five medals on the day - the best ever.
At the beginning of the day, most Indians would have bet on one of Devendra Jhajharia or Sundar Singh Gurjar winning India's first gold at the Tokyo Paralympics.
What those predictions had not factored in was one name: Avani Lekhara. Just 19 at the time, most observers felt that Lekhara might come into her own at the next Paralympics. The prevailing wisdom was that the Tokyo Games would be an opportunity for her to gain some invaluable experience on the biggest stage.
Lekhara, though, had been preparing for this opportunity for many years. After a road accident in 2012, she suffered a lesion in her spine which led to paraplegia and losing control of her body, waist down. Having tried her hand at archery, swimming and athletics, she eventually chose shooting.
Her dedication was second to none as she would put in long hours at the range every day, something that would leave her father worried about the physical exertion she was putting her body through.
It was that dedication which saw her enroll at Suma Shirur's academy in Mumbai. Based in Jaipur, the decision meant Lekhara had to travel multiple times a year to Mumbai. She is, in fact, the only para athlete at the facility, which has over 150 trainees. She also decided to work with a sports psychologist as dealing with thoughts during competition is a vital aspect of a static sport like shooting.
Jhajharia and Gurjar did medal on the day but before them, Lekhara delivered India's first gold in Tokyo early in the morning, becoming the first Indian woman to win gold at the Olympics or Paralympics.
Tearing up the record books
Apart from being the first Indian female Paralympic champion, there were a spate of other records that came in its wake Lekhara won India's first medal ever in shooting at the Paralympics and also became just the third Indian woman after Deepa Malik and Bhavinaben Patel to medal at the Games. At 19, she was also the youngest Indian to win a Paralympic medal, a record that was subsequently broken by Praveen Kumar in Tokyo.
Having been inspired to take the sport seriously after reading India's first individual Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra's autobiography, A Shot At History, she now joined him in the list of Indians to win a shooting gold at the Olympics or Paralympics.
After finishing seventh in the qualification round, Lekhara put in her best display ever in the women's 10m air rifle standing SH1 event in the final, setting a new Paralympic record and equaling the world record with a score of 249.6. The competition featured the likes of China's Zhang Cuiping, the defending champion, who won silver with a total of 248.9, and Ukraine's Iryna Shchetnik, the reigning world champion and then world no. 1 and world record holder.
Speaking after the final, she said, "I just think that I have to follow the process. Beyond that, I try not to think about the score or the medal tally."
It might seem like staple athlete talk but Lekhara follows that to the tee and it showed when she followed up her gold with a bronze in the women's 50m rifle 3 positions SH1 event, becoming the first Indian woman to win multiple medals at the Paralympics - another record.
She also became the second Indian after Joginder Singh Bedi (three in 1984) to win multiple medals in a single edition of the Paralympics.
Still only 20, Lekhara's potential is boundless, something reflected in her being the only athlete to win multiple categories this year in the ESPN India awards. After multiple Paralympic medals in 2021, Avani Lekhara is just getting started.