In the year 2012, Aanchal Thakur made headlines for scoring India a Bronze Medal in Alpine Skiing at the Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup which was held in Turkey and was organised by the Federation Internationale de Ski. Since then, Aanchal has been taking on the world of Indian Alpine sports by storm. We got talking with the young athlete, as she told of her long journey to the top, and of the trials and tribulations along the way.
“It’s beautiful.” Aanchal explains, “You can lose yourself in nature, in the speed of the descent, in the wind that rushes past you and hits you in the face. It’s an incredible feeling, coming down the mountain.”
The Road to the Olympics
Born and raised in the quiet mountain town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh, Aanchal began her journey on skis at the tender age of 5, when she began taking on the snowy slopes of her hometown alongside her older brother, Himanshu. A family of skiers, Aanchal was soon following in the footsteps of her older brother, who made his Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Games, and her father, the Secretary of the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI), taking on the sport as her own.
“Over time, and with a lot of practice over the years, I began to realise that this is my passion and that I wanted to continue skiing for the rest of my life!” Aanchal says.
Born with the lungs of a mountaineer, Aanchal quickly adjusted to the high-altitude sport. Stressing the value of fitness, Aanchal tells of the physical strain of exertion in a low-oxygen environment, and of the many risks involved in Winter Sports.
“To be a Winter Sports athlete, you have to be able to overcome your fear of speed, heights, and all-round physical injury. The risk-factor is elevated with Alpine Skiing,” she explains, “In India, because there is no snow in the summer, you have to stay on your toes- keep up with conditional training in preparation for the winter.”
Due to a lack of infrastructure, Aanchal’s training involves physically climbing up a mountain, gear and all, in under two hours, only to ski back down in a matter of minutes. The grueling routine takes up the whole day, with only about 5 successful runs in a day. However, all of Aanchal’s determination bore sweet fruit, when she was selected out of Himachal for the first round of the New Zealand qualifying races for the 2012 Youth Olympics.
“I was one of two girls selected for training, and the qualifying races in New Zealand,” Aanchal explains, “We competed in 8 races for two events, the Girl’s Slalom and Girl’s Giant Slalom, and I was given the opportunity to represent my country at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics!”
When asked about that historic day, a star-struck Aanchal reveals what she remembers: a hazy, happy blur of confusion and colour. “I was so young that I can barely remember!” she says, “I remember waving the Indian flag in my Kulluvi hat, and looking around for my father in the crowd because I missed him- it was a great feeling.
As Aanchal tells of her experience, it becomes quickly apparent that the Indian Winter Sporting sphere falls short in terms of infrastructure available for athletes, an issue that has been largely ignored in the past.
“The government has never been involved in Winter sports,” Aanchal reveals, “The problem of infrastructure has always been present. In India, there are no facilities for skiers to travel uphill. There were no chairlifts, only a single gondola, which can be quite expensive to use multiple times in a day.”
With a single round trip setting her back Rs.500, Aanchal and her family quickly realised that this career would not be an inexpensive one. As a professional athlete, Aanchal needed to clock in at least 10 rounds of training in a day. To combat the rising expenditure of pursuing her dream, Aanchal, and her brother would undertake multiple ascents of the mountain every day in the dead of winter.
“We’d climb for an hour, two hours at a time- this simply isn’t enough for international level training,” Aanchal says.
With the level of infrastructure at sub-par levels in the country, Aanchal and her family were forced to look elsewhere for a stable training regimen. It was so that Aanchal began training on the snowy slopes of Europe, in preparation for her award-winning career in Alpine Skiing.
“Whenever we got the opportunity to go away, like in Europe for example, we were taken aback by the skill of the other skiers,” Aanchal says, “It’s easy to see that the level of the skiers is very high because of their training. When we train in India we can do up to 5 runs in a day, but in Europe, it’s easy to get in at least 20 in a single day.”
The Indian Government’s lack of investment in the Winter Sporting industry comes as a shocking setback to future athletes around the nation. When asked what facilities she currently lacks, Aanchal reveals that even the most basic elements of a good run, like a chairlift, a well-groomed slope, and a snow machine would be enough to change the face of Alpine Skiing in her region.
“I think if the government invested more time and money into the industry, they would quickly learn that India is filled with a number of good skiers.” Aanchal muses.
The government’s reluctance in terms of providing basic infrastructure to the athletes in the Winter Sports realm stems from India’s geography, with snow only concentrated around certain areas in the North, including Gulmarg, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Due to the lack of snow in the sub-continent, Aanchal believes the government had not thought it necessary to invest in a sport with only regional popularity. However, all of that changed last year.
In 2018, Aanchal made history after becoming the first-ever Indian to claim a medal at the Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup which was held in Turkey and was organised by the Federation Internationale de Ski. Her success in Turkey has uplifted the sport in the public eye, with the Indian government finally turning their gaze toward the industry, even trying up with ski resorts in Himachal Pradesh.
The future is promising for the young athlete, who will be competing in the 2021 World Championship trials this coming winter, hoping to represent her country one more time. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Aanchal talks of the support and upliftment she received from her family and fans.
“I have been lucky in that sense,” Aanchal says, “I think that the Indian society is getting better at accepting that women are equal to men. I believe that in the future, there will not be a difference between female leaders and male leaders, the world would only have leaders- strong, powerful people that are not defined by their gender.”
When asked why more of the Indian population should try their hand at the sport, Aanchal speaks of her love of the mountains, and of nature and meditation. “Winter Sports offer you a different perspective on the world, one that is removed from city life, where you may enjoy the natural beauty of the mountains.” She explains, “There is no room for rushing here. If you rush, you will find yourself sliding downhill. It’s almost like a meditation in the middle of nature.”
An inspiration to young boys and girls all over the nation, a humble Aanchal reveals that she has never considered any of her numerous accolades to be achievements, but rather milestones on her journey, which has only just begun. “I have never liked the word ‘achieved’.” She says, “I don’t want to end my thinking in that manner, I don’t ever want to stop.”
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The images used in this article are courtesy of Aanchal Thakur and Medallin Sports.