Teenage medal winners have been the talk of India's most successful Asian Games campaign ever and while the likes of shooters Saurabh Chaudhary and Shardul Vihan have been in the limelight, there is one teen star who has silently sailed to a podium finish.
Sixteen-year-old Harshita Tomar, who won a bronze in the Open Laser 4.7 sailing category in the Asian Games, is the second youngest medallist after Chaudhary to win a medal at the Asian Games.
It has been a crazy four days in the capital for the Bhopal-based sailor and her parents. A product of the Madhya Pradesh government's Water Sports Academy under the Department of Sports and Youth Wing, the class 10 student has a very serene air about her. Harshita listens carefully and responds in a measured manner.
After meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as attending a felicitation organised by the Union ministry of youth affairs and sports and also one back home in Bhopal organised by the state government, Harshita was felicitated on Thursday by Alok Kumar Verma, Director, Central Bureau of Investigation at the bureau's headquarters in New Delhi. Harshita's mother, Rani, is a CBI constable posted in Bhopal and gets the support of her department when it comes to ensuring her daughter's sailing ambitions are fulfilled.
Understated, but supremely confident about her ability, the soft spoken teen was very matter-of-fact about her achievement. Harshita competed in the Open category against the boys, and finished on the podium―the only girl to do so. In fact, she was the only girl to finish in the top 10 in her category.
“Actually if I was competing at home, my bronze in the Open category would have been a gold,” Harshita said, flanked by her parents at the CBI headquarter's ahead of her meeting with Verma. “We practice with boys in our training. Our nationals are also combined events,” she said.
Harshita started as a swimmer―her father Devendra Singh Tomar, an executive in a leading Hindi newspaper group in Bhopal taught her how to swim at the age of two. It was while she was participating in a swimming competition in Hoshangabad that she got selected by the coaches at the water sports department for sailing, finding her body weight and height apt for the Laser class. Harshita's family originally hails from Hoshangabad, the city on the banks of river Narmada. It is not surprising that the connection between Harshita and the water is a strong one.
Harshita was 12 years old at the time. The family took a big call and decided to move base to Bhopal for their daughter to pursue her sailing dreams. She was to give her class 10 board exams this year but had to give them a miss after qualifying for the Asian Games.
“She informed us that she has been selected for Asian Games and will have to go abroad for training and cannot give the exams. We were very perturbed as this was the class 10 boards, but my wife and I then concurred that while she can give her exams next year, Asian Games wont happen till next four years and we decided to let her miss the boards. Even the CBSE officials in Bhopal supported us and guided us that she can give the exams through the Open school,” said her father Devendra Singh Tomar.
Sailing, without doubt, is an expensive sport―credit to the state government for ensuring the necessary equipment was provided. The Open Laser 4.7 category is not an Olympic event though. Harshita has no direct funding from the Union government's National Sports Development Fund or the Target Olympic Podium Scheme. She credits the training stint organised by the foreign coach Alexander Denisiuc for being extremely helpful ahead of the crucial qualifying event.
“Alex sir was extremely supportive during the Asian Games. He would continuously encourage me, explain to me even if a few races didn't go too well. He has the experience and he would share his with us,” said Harshita.
Harshita also credits three of her national coaches who have trained her so far. These coaches are funded by the Sports Authority of India.
The hiring of the three foreign coaches including Alexander was more by chance than design―they came in only six months before the Asian Games. The state of affairs in the Yachting Association of India is quite messy with issues of selection, court cases by sailors past and present as well as the hiring of controversial foreign coach Pete Conway.