By Shail Desai
About a year ago, archer Deepika Kumari had to put her bow away, as she awaited the start of another beautiful journey. In December 2022, the Olympian’s life changed with the arrival of her daughter, Vedika.
The two-time World Championships silver medallist had her hands full. But just three weeks after Vedika’s birth, she was back on the ground taking aim to make the cut for the Indian team. “That time was unlike how things are today. My body reacted very differently after delivery. It wasn’t like I was trailing by a big margin during the trials, but I was out of the team due to a single mistake," Kumari, 29, recalls.
Over the last few months, it’s been a gradual rebuilding effort for Kumari. And she realised things were on track after regaining her touch at the first major competition this year. At the National Games in Goa in November, she picked up three medals in all: gold in the individual and mixed team, while silver in the women’s team event.
“The National Games was big for me since I was competing after really long. Right before this event, I had gone for the selection trials of the Asian Archery Championships where I finished fifth. I faced a few problems there, so my main goal was to iron them out while looking at long term goals," she says. “More than the medals, I was happy with how I fared. I was able to overcome quite a few things, both mentally and with respect to my technique," she adds.
Though she was back at training just a few days after her daughter was born, it took a while for Kumari to take on a full training load. At the Sports Authority of India (SAI) facility in Kolkata, she worked with coach Mim Bahadur Gurung to find the form that won her gold at the World Cup in Guatemala City in 2021, at the time her last major medal. She also had her husband, Olympian Atanu Das’ company, whenever he had time off from the national camp.
“There was no way I could work on my physical fitness after delivery. Archery is an outdoor sport that needs power, so a lot of things changed because of the lack of strength. For instance, trials go on for six days and there is no rest in between. So, to continuously put in the performances and last all those days was tough. It took me seven months before I could take on a full training load and shoot 350-400 arrows each day. I had to be really patient and allow my body to recover," she says.
The mental rebuilding, the most critical aspect of archery according to Kumari, took much longer. “Almost 95% of this game is mental. During those 5-6 seconds when you lift the bow, there are so many things that run in your head. Then, there are times when there is nothing in the head. And you have to deal with both situations," she says.
Plenty of her training sessions revolved around breathing exercises, yoga and positive reinforcement based on different situations she was likely to find herself in. “When it comes to the mental aspect of archery, every single day and every single match is different, as are the individual and team events. If you don’t know how to deal with pressure, it is going to tire you. Archery is such that you have to think of the right things and at the right time to put in the performance and get results," she says.
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Kumari feels that there’s still a lot of work that she still needs to put in, including preparing to overcome any problem that may arise. “We take into account every situation during practice, well aware that you will never feel the same during competition. But we try to visualise the same things and the subconscious mind knows what needs to be done, reacting as if it were just another training session," she says.
Kumari looks back fondly at the carefree times when she could get home from practice and simply put her feet up and rest. After embracing motherhood, she’s become more particular when it comes to planning out the entire day. “I used to be very careless - theek hai, ho jayega, kar lenge (It’s alright, I’ll get down to finishing it soon). But that has changed now," she says.
These days, her mornings start early. Kumari likes to plan training, rest and chores around her very active baby, who loves playing and always keeps her on the toes. “There’s always something to attend to at home. I’m glad my in-laws have been supportive, which has helped me train well. But there’s always that thought in the head— what’s going on at home and that there’s a little baby who needs your time. I’m gradually trying to balance everything," she says.
In the time ahead, Kumari wants to target the National Championship, followed by the trials for the Paris Olympics in January. The Indian women’s recurve team has experienced a slump of late, returning empty-handed from the Asian Games. At the Asian Archery Championships, the team won bronze but failed to secure a quota for the Paris Olympics. But Kumari is up to the challenge, starting with reclaiming her spot on the national team.
“I was always confident that pregnancy was not the end of my career. Atanu and I knew that we had to go through this situation sooner or later. And that I would land up losing over a year until I found my touch again. So I asked him to focus on his career, while I had the baby. I wanted to go through it on a good note and return confident of making a comeback on the Indian team again," she says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.