A fall during the East Timor alpine skiing National Junior Championships in Kolasin, Montenegro, earned Aanchal Thakur a ‘DNF’ at the giant slalom event. That and muscle soreness in her left thigh.
A day later though, on Thursday, at the Jamaica Ski Federation’s national championships, she won bronze to become the only Indian to win a second Internationale de Ski (FSI) – the world body – medal. The first medal came in 2018, when she won bronze at the FIS Alpine Edjer 3200 Cup in Turkey, a feat that announced her name on the international circuit.
“The weather was very bad on Wednesday and when I had the fall, I felt soreness in my left thigh the entire day,” she told The Indian Express. “I had a good first run but then had the fall. The weather was better on Thursday, and I thought about the first run I had earlier and just aimed to give it my best shot.
“The first run timing of 56.38 seconds made me feel confident about the conditions and I’m glad I could get my career’s second international medal.”
Reliance on crowdfunding
This is the first year since the Turkish sojourn that the Himachal Pradesh-native managed to compete on the international circuit. She finished 59th and 47th in the giant slalom and slalom events respectively at the FIS World Ski Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy in February. But the same reason that stopped her from competing in the 2019 season (she was forced to skip competing in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic) was threatening to rupture her hopes for being a regular this year: a lack of funding.
Thakur was not supported by government funds since the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has derecognised the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI). By August though, the 25-year-old along with elder brother and fellow international skier Himanshu started a crowdfunding campaign on social media. Meanwhile her father Roshal Lal Thakur, a paragliding instructor, borrowed money from friends and relatives.
“Post winning the medal in Turkey, I did not get any sponsor or funds from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) or the national federation. While I did not compete in 2019 as well in 2020, I did not want to miss training and competitions this year,” she said.
“A friend told us to start crowdfunding and even though we got close to Rs 2.5 lakh from friends and fellow skiers, apart from Rs 5 lakh each given by the state government after our arrival here, my father had to arrange funds and borrow money to meet the expenditure of Rs 40 lakh for this trip.”
The brother-sister duo arrived in Austria in October but neither were allowed to compete at any event since authorities did not recognise the Covishield vaccine. It was only after getting a Pfizer vaccine shot that Thakur was eligible to compete in Italy and Austria before travelling for events in Sweden.
Though finally managing to travel, the financial crunch forced them to find lodging in rented rooms barely big enough to store their equipment.
“For us, every day is precious as we get to train in Europe only once in a year or two years. One day of training at a ski resort in Austria or Sweden costs about 200 Euros plus an additional 60 Euros ticket for a ski lift. And we have to make full use of the four-hour training sessions,” she said.
“We pay around 60-70 Euros to enter competitions, so we know that we have to cut down on other expenditures to save money. We once took a ten-hour train journey in (the cheaper) chair car from Austria to Sweden and had to keep an eye on our equipment near the door. And there are times when we are staying in a room so small, that when one of us is polishing the skis, the other has to go to the bathroom to avoid getting hit by the small splinters flying from the polishing.”
Eye on Beijing Games
Thakur had planned to compete in at least 20 FIS events, hoping to get the required below 160 average score in five races needed to bag a Winter Olympic quota. So far she’s only competed in eight.
Earlier this month, at an event in Sweden, she won 207.84 points after finishing 21st in a tough field where most athletes were ranked between 500 and 3000. In comparison, Ljutic is ranked 3168 in the FIS point list.
But she plans to stay in Montenegro for another week before moving to Iran to try her luck before the deadline to earn Olympic qualification ends on January 15.
“We only get to know about the field on reaching the competition venue and we cannot plan this in advance while sitting in India,” said Thakur, who is ranked 2950 in the FIS leaderboard. “In Sweden, the field was elite and I would have needed more competitions under my belt to be in top-ten and to have scored less than 160 to qualify for Beijing. Whatever chances we get, we prepare and compete to give our best.”
The lockdown caused by the pandemic and staying at her village, Barua near Manali, meant that Thakur had to keep her mind and body fit for competitions. She took up rolling skating and practised it on the route to Sissu in Lahaul, crossing the Atal Tunnel on skates to help her keep her balance in check.
“When we don’t compete or train, it’s tougher to maintain high fitness levels – both mind and body. I did shadow skiing practice apart from gym training, but I also started roller skating as it helps in balancing the body same as skiing,” said Thakur.
Now she has to find the perfect balance in her schedule and her scores to ski her way to Beijing.