There has probably never been a more pertinent time than now, to bring into the spotlight one of India’s lesser-known sportswomen who has been quietly amassing medals for the country, including the Gold at the South Asian Championships (in Karate) last year, since she 14. Unfortunately, for Amritpal Kaur, her choice of sport has not been prolific enough to ensure she gets her due. But her story is a remarkable one—one of grit, determination and steely resolve, one that could inspire thousands of other young girls currently disillusioned and disheartened by the widespread patriarchy and economic disparity we continue to battle, even in 2020.
Born into a lower-middle-class Ramgarhia Tarkhan Sikh family struggling to make ends meet in Delhi, Kaur—an ace student who graduated with English Honours from Janki Devi Memorial College—initially started learning karate as a form of self-defence. As a 13-year-old girl making her way to school, like most Indian women, she’d have to brave her way through the eve-teasers of the opposite sex, sparking her interest in karate. It wasn’t until later when she discovered this form of martial arts was actually a sport, she shifted her focus from badminton (which she took up with the goal of winning the school’s all-rounder prize each year) to karate, soon making it to the national team and winning state, national and international tournaments.
The journey has (and continues to be) an arduous one. “There have been many challenges,” says the Kaur, a black belt in Sito Tyo Seiko Kai (one of the major style in karate, most popular in West Japan). “Initially, even my parents were not supportive of my decision as they wanted me to do something with academics. Plus, we had no money for my training, and because karate is such a low-profile sport, funding (whether from the government or from private sources) has been is hard to come by.”
Kaur, who started training with an amateur in her local park, lost all her professional matches the first two years. To solidify her game, she’d collect her daily pocket money (which would roughly round up to Rs 10 a week) and spend that at a cyber cafe, watching YouTube videos of popular karate world champion from Azerbaijani, Rafael Aghayev, for hours learning new techniques and then putting those into practise during her training. Her efforts gradually paid off—she soon made it to the national team. “Also, because I was a topper, I would get many scholarships, which I used to fund my training,” she adds.
Unfortunately, despite her stellar performances, Kaur could not make it to the Tokyo Olympics, now rescheduled for 2021, despite the fact that she was ready for a win, having practised a good six hours daily and maintaining a strict lifestyle. “All the qualifying matches that started in 2018 were being held in Europe. As karate players, we have to fund ourselves completely—from our training to the airfare and accommodation when we travel. I could not afford to participate,” she reveals shockingly. Then just before the start of the pandemic, while competing at the President’s Cup in Goa, a bad fall resulted in a torn ACL and complete bed rest for the Commonwealth Gold medallist.
Her road to recovery is thankfully underway, thanks to actor Sonu Sood who has been continually helping migrants throughout the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. “He saw a tweet about my injury on Twitter and immediately got his team to reach out to me and fund my surgery,” says Kaur, currently undergoing physiotherapy.
Despite the setback, however, Kaur’s campaign to become the first Indian to win the gold medal at the Karate World Championships next year is well on course, now with the support of sports enthusiasts, businessman, educationist and sports-specific movie producer Sujay Jairaj. The latter, who, for several years now has been tracking and helping up and coming talent in sports like badminton, hockey, shooting and karate from rural as well as urban areas, has pledged financial support and other necessary resources to Kaur so she realises her dream and brings back a medal for the country.
Jairaj, who secured the rights to badminton champ Saina Nehwal’s life story some years ago—soon be seen in the eponymous biopic Saina by T-Series—has also bought the rights to Kaur’s journey. “She is a brilliant player, who, without any backing, has won some of the toughest championships. The hardships and struggles she’s had to face have not diminished her drive one bit. Even now, though she is injured, she is working hard on her comeback. It’s so amazing so see that kind of motivation and, as a national badminton player myself [now training to become a professional shooter] and a father of two young children, I believe it is important to share inspiring stories such as hers,” he says.
Here’s wishing India’s karate champ the very best in her quest for gold!