(August 31, 2021) Growing up, Avani Lekhara idolized Abhinav Bindra, the shooter who brought home the 2008 Olympic gold. Bindra was the first Indian individual athlete to bag an Olympic gold, but this past week, Avani became the first Indian female athlete to win gold at the Tokyo Paralympics: she clearly took a leaf out of her idol’s book. The 19-year-old Indian athlete led the field from the beginning of the finale finishing with a total of 249.6 points, equaling the world record.
— Abhinav A. Bindra OLY (@Abhinav_Bindra) August 30, 2021
Avani burst onto the scene when she first participated in the National Shooting Championship in 2015 where she won gold for Rajasthan, her home state. She followed up that brilliant outing with more medals in 2016 and 2017 when she won the silver medal at the IPC Para Shooting World Cup in Dubai. As she qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics, the teenager was one of the top medal prospects for India.
In an interview with Sports Tak, she said,
“It was a roller-coaster ride. There were a lot of ups and downs. But I am thankful for the journey because it took me here, it motivated me. I am fortunate that I have very supportive parents. They supported me at each and every step. There is no shortcut for hardwork. You just have to believe in yourself and keeping working hard. These two things have helped me win the medal. Everyone should trust themselves. Nothing better than giving 100 percent.”
From a teen who found it difficult to deal with her paralysis to setting new records, Avani has come a long way since the time she first experimented with shooting using a rifle borrowed from her coach.
— #Tokyo2020 (@Tokyo2020) August 30, 2021
Proudly wearing her battle scars
Born to Praveen and Shweta Lekhara in Rajasthan, Avani had a happy childhood along with her brother Arnav. But things took an ugly turn when the family met with a horrific accident in 2012. The family had been travelling from Jaipur to Dholpur, where Praveen was posted as an ADM, when their car skid and turned turtle. While the entire family was injured, it was Avani who had the worst of it – she had spinal cord injuries that left her paralyzed from the waist down; she was 11-years-old.
Understandably, Avani was upset at her condition and often angry too. So in 2015, her father began taking her to the JDA shooting range to cheer her up and bring back some semblance of normalcy in her life. “Before the accident, she was very active and had participated in every activity. But the accident changed her life,” Praveen told PTI. “She was angry at her condition and hardly had a desire to talk to anyone. For a change, I used to take her to JDA shooting range in Jagatpura, Jaipur where she developed interest in shooting,” he said.
These visits began to work wonders for the teen, who fell in love with the sport; she’d found a purpose in life. Her father also got her the autobiography of Abhinav Bindra, A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold, which inspired her to take up shooting professionally.
Ever since, she became a regular at the shooting range. Since April 2015, she has been a regular visitor to the shooting range. Her journey into the sport came with its own share of challenges – from unavailability of guns and shooting kits to facing difficulties because she was wheelchair bound.
By 2015 she had participated in the National Shooting Championship where she won gold for Rajasthan. In 2016 Avani began training with coach Chandra Shekhar at the Jagatpura Shooting Range and he got her to focus on 50m rifle events apart from the 10m category. By 2017 she had won the silver medal at the IPC Para Shooting World Cup in Dubai and also bagged a bronze at the WSPS World Cup in Bangkok that same year. She qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics soon after.
In 2018 Avani began training with coach Suma Shirur at the Lakshya Shooting Club in Mumbai. During the pandemic she practiced online at home with a computerized digital target program that was provided by the Sports Authority of India. In 2019, she won the WSPC World Cup in Croatia and another one at the WSPC World Cup in Al Ain earlier in 2021.
From a teen who battled grievous injuries, underwent multiple rounds of physio, dealt with anger issues and finally found her calling in shooting, Avani has come a long way. Her win at the Tokyo Paralympics has come as a great boost to the sport and is a matter of pride for the country.