When Chandra Shekhar first met Avani Lekhara in January 2016, the teenager was finding her feet in shooting. More than that, the trauma of the road accident that impacted the entire family and left Avani paralysed waist down was yet to leave her. But succour lay in store. Little known to Avani, the man who took her under his wing as coach a few months down would guide her to a landmark unthinkable at that stage — the podium summit at the Paralympic Games.
A gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics was what Chandra Sekhar, a coach with the Rajasthan State Sports Council, had promised her father Praveen, a senior state government official. “Soon after Avani qualified for the Nationals, her father asked me to become her full-time coach,” Chandra Sekhar told indianshooting.com.
It was a challenge on many fronts. This was the first instance Chandra Sekhar was interacting with a para-athlete and matters like finetuning equipment and gear according to need. The other was helping Avani emerge out of the trauma of the car crash. Confidence-building measures were a must too “between us and Avani believing in herself”, and the teenager’s above-average intelligence and grasping power proved to be a strong aide.
Though achievements kept trickling in, work on instilling belief in Avani that she was a champion took time. It had started in October 2016, when Chandra Shekhar came on board, and went on till March 2021 when the Indian team travelled to the World Cup at Al Ain in UAE. Avani was a key member of the squad and Chandra Shekhar on board as coach, courtesy the efforts of the Sports Authority of India and Paralympic Committee of India to give the shooters sound guidance during that trip.
“The exposure was an eye-opener and on return I made changes in my training methods, mental and technical,” said Chandra Shekhar. The challenges though did not stop. The pandemic and ensuing lockdown stalled training for a while, but the student-coach duo found a way out with an indoor contraption. Avani was diligent alright, but Chandra Shekhar too was equally focussed on the promise he had made to the family at the outset. To ensure his attention did not get divided, the coach did not enlist any other student in this period.
Focussing largely on breaking psychological barriers, physical fitness, technical knowhow and exploiting weaknesses in a way that they work in favour, Chandra Shekhar moulded Avani into a world beater. “Very often, an athlete strives for gold but has to settle for silver or bronze for the above-mentioned factors,” said Chandra Shekhar. Hence, the focus on these key areas.
Chandra Shekhar was sure of the path, but Avani’s family wasn’t, given the uncertainty of the times and the disruption in training. To dispel their doubts, Chandra Shekhar downloaded a replica of the gold medal from the Tokyo Paralympics website on his phone. He edited the image and embossed ‘Avani Lekhara, India’ on it and sent it to Avani’s father Praveen in the early hours of July 21, nine days before Avani’s event, women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 event.
“The next morning her father enquired about the WhatsApp message, and my reply was ‘this is the future’. He was uncertain, but I was sure, and told him this is God’s will.” So, it was. Avani made herself and the nation proud by becoming the first woman athlete to win a Paralympic gold for the country. While his student soaks in the adulation, Chandra Shekhar is happy watching from the side-line, happy he could be a part of the journey.
By Robin Bose