NEW DELHI: She has already defied the odds in a country fixated on cricket rather than the slopes to win India's first international skiing medal -- but Aanchal Thakur insists she is just getting started.
The 21-year-old dreams of following her older brother Himanshu to compete in the Winter Olympics, a feat so improbable only one Indian woman has ever done it. She credits Himanshu with inspiring her to dedicate herself to what remains a highly niche sport, despite her family's best efforts, in a country where cricketers are idolised and skiing is sidelined.
Aanchal made Indian sporting history when she won a bronze medal last week at the Ejder 3200 Cup slalom in Turkey, but did not amass enough points to qualify for next month's Pyeongchang Games in South Korea. But she is determined to make the cut for the 2022 edition in China.
Himanshu, 24, India's top male skier, made his Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Games and races on Saturday in Iran as he bids to compete in Pyeongchang. "Now he is so close to the Olympic Games. He was pushing me also. I will make sure that I will be there with him in 2022," said Aanchal, who was India's national ski champion in 2014 and 2017. "There is no rivalry, I must say, because he is always helping me (with) technique, always supporting me, motivating me."
Her success in Turkey promises to dramatically raise the profile of skiing in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate her after she clinched the historic medal, tweeting that the whole country was "ecstatic". Aanchal's name went viral on social media, with many hailing her achievement as a leap forward for Indian sportswomen.
Skiing badly needs greater recognition to take off in India. Neha Ahuja, who competed in Turin in 2006, remains the only woman ever to have represented the vast country at a Winter Olympics. "This medal will be a turning point for ski and winter sports in India. I can see a bright future (for) skiing in India," Aanchal told AFP. "Now I think the government will support us. There can be nothing bigger than getting praised by PM Modi ji. So I think that everybody is aware of skiing now."
India: not just cricket
Aanchal comes from a ski-crazy family in the northern Indian hill town of Manali and her father Roshan Thakur is secretary of the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI). But in a brutal reminder of the second-class status of skiing in India, WGFI is not even recognised by India's sports ministry and must fend for itself in a sport that requires expensive equipment.
The sport also is also cramped by a relatively short season in India. Aanchal started skiing at six and with her father's encouragement made great strides nationally. But even to make it to international competitions was a huge achievement.
Funding trips to Europe for training has been difficult with the family forced to seek help from the International Ski Federation. "Apart from my dad, we got some sponsors from the sports' international body so we could train in Switzerland and in Austria for races," Aanchal said.
Aanchal sometimes trains in the Solang Valley in the Himalayas but long struggled to gain enough daily runs to be competitive in international skiing. She only goes to India's main ski centres of Auli and Gulmarg for national championships. But she insists if she can climb to the summit, then others can follow. "Cricket is not the only sport in India and I want to say that if you like skiing, please come over (to) Manali or Gulmarg or Auli," said Aanchal.