It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I’m the master of my fate
I’m the captain of my soul
What better than these words of Invictus to perfectly embody the indomitable spirit of Sheetal Devi, the 16 year old archer from the remote village Loidhar in Kishtwar, who has become the cynosure of eyes worldwide with her stunning victories at the recently concluded Asian Para Games in Hangzhou.
A lot has been written about the marvel that is Sheetal Devi but a lot more has been left unsaid. This write-up isn’t just an enlistment of her innumerable accomplishments and her sheer brilliance, but a humble tribute to her courage, fortitude and perseverance in the face of the many adversities that life threw at her, right from the beginning.
In a country like India, sport icons with their marvelous achievements and remarkable stories aren’t a new phenomenon. However, it was not till very recently that such heroes have come to the fore even from the so-called less popular sports and para-athletics, where historically such examples have dwindled so to speak.
In this context, the story of Sheetal Devi becomes even more special, more important for us all, for at a young age of 16, and with a disability that many would describe as unfortunate and tragic, Sheetal has become a beacon of hope and inspiration for those who have lost heart and given up.
Hailing for a remote village in Kishtwar, Sheetal was born with Phocomelia, a disability, which in her own words, brought significant despair and hopelessness to her family and herself. However it is a remarkable twist of fate that the very disability that was her obstacle, is today the cause of her glory. As she recounts, despite the many challenges that her disability brought into her life, she didn’t let it dim the light within.
To make up for the many things that phocomelia prevented her from doing, she found respite in climbing trees. Little did she know that this fun, simple activity that was her escape from the harsh realities of her life, was surreptitiously developing her athleticism and upper body strength, something that was noticed by the scouts at an event organized by the Indian Army in Kishtwar. It was this upper body strength, developed over years of tree climbing that would become the cornerstone in her quest to become the world’s first female armless archer, especially when her successive attempts at getting a prosthetic arm failed.
Despite these setbacks, her coaches didn’t lose heart, and inspired by the case of another arm-less archer, Matt Stutzman, they set to train Sheetal in archery, the sport in which one of the most important parts of the body, one would argue, would be one’s hands. Her success, therefore, is a celebration of the belief of all those who attempted to do the impossible, it is a celebration of the failures and the setbacks they would have encountered in this journey and lastly, it is a celebration of the unwavering support of Sheetal’s family and her team that ensured that she didn’t walk this path alone.
Sheetal’s victory, as much as it is a reason to celebrate for the entire nation, also offers significant lessons of life, if one halts and observes closely. It teaches us to play the best with whatever cards we are dealt with. It teaches us that we have the power to choose how we respond to the challenges life throws at us, and Sheetal exercised this power rationally and correctly, driven by her spirit and inner belief. And when a person sets on a path, as arduous as this, the universe is bound to conspire to make it happen and ensure that the ensuing applause is as tumultuous as Sheetal witnessed. What else would explain her “discovery” by the Indian army at a camp to her training in archery and the subsequent victories, despite the successive obstacles that lay in her path.
From being an armless archer to a timeless doyenne in para-athletics, Sheetal is more than an inspiration. There’s as much to learn from her as there is to celebrate, if not more.
In a nation that has for long been starved of authentic sporting heroes apart from the much loved and celebrated mainstream sports, the recent rise of athletes and sportspersons like her is a harbinger of hope for all alike. In her victory, there are lessons for us to emulate in our own personal struggles, whatever they may be.