“They said, ‘If you fail at archery, what will you do?”

“Papa was an auto rickshaw driver and mummy worked at the village hospital. We struggled financially–our home had no bathroom so we’d bathe in the river. We’d often go to bed on an empty stomach. Even school fees were difficult to pay. I often heard my parents argue about our family’s financial situation– it upset me deeply.

One summer, while I was playing with my cousin, she mentioned that she’d just started training in an archery academy in Jamshedpur. She sounded so passionate about the sport and told me that the cost of living there was free. The only thing I knew about archery was that the Mahabharat characters use bows and arrows.

My family’s situation was dire and I didn’t want to be a burden on them. I begged them to allow me to go, but they were apprehensive and said, ‘You’re only twelve.’ They also worried about what society would say– permitting a girl child to leave home before she got married was a taboo in our village. But I persisted until they relented.

My parents took me to the academy and I cleared the trials for selection. For my family, the certainty that I was going to eat three meals a day was enough. But over time, I discovered I had a natural talent for archery and would excitedly wake up early for practice. When I’d hit the target, I’d boast to everyone, ‘I’m the best!’

Archery became my world, as I lost interest in studies. My parents were worried sick when I decided to drop out of school in class 8 to pursue a future in the sport. They said, ‘If you fail at archery, what will you do?’ But I truly believed that this was what I was meant to do. And as I got recognised for my skills, I got an opportunity to train at an academy that had formal equipment. The members there told me, ‘You only have 3 months to prove yourself.’ I knew it was now or never and that made me train harder–as a result I got selected to participate in state and national competitions.

I remember earning my first paycheck; I won Rs 20,000 and a gold medal in a national competition. I saved Rs 2,000 for myself and gave the rest to my family as a gift. Papa looked at me in disbelief and said, ‘Did you steal this?’ I hugged him and said, ‘No, I earned it!’

And at 15, I represented India at the Commonwealth Games and clinched two gold medals! My dream to participate in the Olympics also came true, but I failed twice. I couldn’t make my mark in London or Rio.

I felt disappointed and pressured reading headlines such as, ‘Deepika ab woh Deepika nahi rahi.’ But I’d tell myself, ‘Itni jaldi main khatam nahi ho sakti’; I paid attention to why my performance was dipping and worked on my game.

And gradually, I found my touch again. My proudest moment came this year when I became World Number 1! And now, here I am at the Tokyo Olympics. My eye is set on the target and my arrow is ready to strike gold!”

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