With the changed dates of the Tokyo Olympics to July 23, 2021 – August 8, 2021, the livelihood of Olympians is in question. During this month of women’s empowerment, let’s underscore one of India’s most prominent female athletes.
Ranked World No. 1 archer at the tender age of 18 and at number 9 currently, India’s Deepika Kumari is an inspiration to thousands out there who dream to participate in the world championships but have practically no social or financial backing. If one breaks the mold and steps up to carry the baton of grit, determination, and achievements, many others are bound to follow.
Kumari, on whom the award-winning documentary Ladies First was based, believes a calm mind is an archer’s biggest asset. Training at the national camp in Pune, India, with an eye on Gold at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, she shares the sweat and toil that goes behind shooting each arrow. Excerpts of a conversation:
IC: What were your first thoughts when the nationwide lockdown happened in March 2020?
DK: I didn’t think much about it initially. About two months later, the Olympics were postponed, which was good in a way as we were unable to do much while at home. But slowly, the uncertainty of when normal life would resume started getting to me. Our first training camp started on October 1. It was a long gap.
IC: Did you continue training during the lockdown?
DK: In the first few weeks, I practiced at home with the portable accessories which we use. These allow a shooting range of 3-4 meters. As an outdoor shooter, my range is 70 meters. Our physical exercises and yoga continued throughout though, alongside eating a whole lot of delicious home food. I also got married (to fellow archer Atanu Das) during this period. Lockdown had both good and bad.
IC: What are your most important assets as an archer – do you have a collection of bows and arrows?
DK: I have two sets of these: two bows and arrows. One set is for daily practice; the second for competitions. In either case, one set I’m using, the second is in reserve. We keep around 6-7 dozen arrows with us made of carbon and wood. That apart, we have accessories/equipment for saving us – helmet, arm guard for elbow, chest guard for half chest, finger tab to protect our fingers from cutting against the thin string, sling so that the bow doesn’t fall, quiver for arrows.
Atanu (my husband) has made my finger tab in leather – our desi jugaad. The string used on our bows is prepared by us in about 35 minutes using thread and wax.
One bow lasts for about 1.5 years. It has various parts – the grip, arrow rest, clicker, limb (refer to picture attached) – which we purchase and assemble as per requirement. Different parts have varying lifespan. Limb lasts 6 months, string for 3 months, etc. We thus keep spares for replacement. Once used completely, we give the bow to other needy kids, sell it or throw it.
We shoot about 450-500 arrows everyday during practice. We cut these arrows ourselves and assemble its various parts – fletch, feather, large and small points and nock. Each and every part of my gear is thus dear to me.
IC: Tell us something about your daily routine – what kind of workout and training you are undergoing daily before the Olympics?
DK: We have our physical (exercises) from 6.30-7.30 every morning. And from 8.30 am-12 noon we practice shooting. We shoot anything between 350-450 arrows in this time and then it’s rest time. Again in the evening, we do physical from 6-7.30 pm, followed by short practice. We take complete rest on Wednesdays and Sundays. I watch movies, listen to songs, sleep, clean my room, wash clothes, and at times play cricket too!
IC: Does the number of arrows you shoot in a day matter?
DK: No, especially before competition, as quality matters more than quantity. We have to control the bow, draw the string as many times as the number of arrows shot. It needs physical power, called poundage. It’s significant to maintain that else you wouldn’t be able to shoot that big a distance in windy outdoor conditions. Continuous practice without long breaks is also critical in maintaining the poundage – something that didn’t happen during lockdown.
IC: Which parts of the body do you work on most rigorously?
DK: The shoulder, since we have to pull a lot. But we require the whole body in archery. Your core should be stable to draw the string. You need energy to breathe through a match/session without gasping. Focusing with one eye is integral to this sport. Thus staying away from eye straining activities like smartphones is a prerequisite in daily life. And finally, mental training.
IC: Concentration on the target – at what age did you first start this and how do you attain it day in day out?
(Starts laughing) I am still a baby in this respect. I started mental training only three years ago. I strongly recommend kids should start focus and concentration exercises early in life. It is paradoxical: we run to sports for fun. And now, when as athletes or commoners we are given focus training, we find it challenging/boring. As a child, no one realizes that they are concentrating while playing. You are given a target; you use your gear, hit, and win! But now, as a competitive player, when your experience and expectations have increased tremendously and you are playing for long hours daily, there is pressure from family, media and even your own self to perform, you don’t know how to handle it all. Now I am learning this technique – mental training. Not allowing the mind to jump around like a monkey with hits and misses requires mental training.
IC: Which skills matter the most in archery according to you?
DK: You gain skills as a sportsperson, but get drained mentally. The skill that matters the most is being calm.
IC: Do you think Indian archers need sports psychologists?
DK: Definitely. I started playing 12 years ago. Had I got this support at that time, I would have perhaps achieved much more… now, Olympic Gold Quest (a not-for-profit organization) is giving us mental training.
IC: Tokyo Olympics would be your first big game since your wedding and you are participating as a couple in it. Excited?
It’s a rare happening for sure. And, perhaps, the first time in the history of Olympics archery at least! I am happy about it. We are each other’s pillar of strength. We want the team to win.
IC: Which is your favorite match so far in your career?
DK: I played (and won gold at) the Delhi Commonwealth Games (2010) when I was just starting out in my career. When I went to play the match, I was not aware of how significant a platform it was. My opponent in the finals Alison Williamson had already played six Olympics. It was an electrifying setting. People were cheering for me and there was wind too. The commentary was in perfect Hindi and with every arrow, my morale was getting higher. I had enjoyed it a lot. And I didn’t know or care that time about winning. But I did.
We look forward to a safe and successful 2021 Summer Olympics and send our best to Deepika Kumari on her upcoming competitions!
Suruchi Tulsyan is an experienced Features Writer. She has been on a break for the past few years since the birth of her kids.
Image by Bill Hails and under the Creative Commons License.