SHOOTER Avani Lekhara scripted history on Monday (30) as she became the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Paralympics, firing her way to the top of the podium in the R-2 women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 event in Tokyo.
The 19-year-old from Jaipur, who sustained spinal cord injuries in a car accident in 2012, finished with a world record equalling total of 249.6, which is also a new Paralympic record.
She is only the fourth Indian athlete to win a Paralympics gold after swimmer Murlikant Petkar (1972), javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia (2004 and 2016) and high jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu (2016).
“I can’t describe this feeling, I’m feeling like I’m on top of the world. It’s unexplainable,” an elated Lekhara said.
Hers is also the first shooting medal that India has logged in the showpiece event.
“I’m so happy I could be the one to contribute it. Hopefully there’s a lot of medals more to come,” Lekhara said.
In the R-1 men’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 event, Mahavir Swaroop Unhalkar missed out on a podium, finishing fourth with a total of 203.9, while his compatriot Deepak was ousted in the qualification round after firing 592.6.
Lekhara edged out 2016 Rio Games gold-medallist Cuiping Zhang of China who clinched the silver medal with a total of 248.9 at the Asaka Shooting Range.
World number one and reigning world campion Iryna Shchetnik of Ukraine took home the bronze with an effort of 227.5.
“I was just saying one thing, that I have to take one shot at a time. There’s nothing else matters now, just take one shot at a time and just finish it.
“I just think that I have to follow the process. Beyond that, I try not to think about the score or the medal tally,” Lekhara said reflecting on her final.
Lekhara had finished fourth in the last world championship in 2019 but won a silver in the para-shooting World Cup in Al Ain in March.
Appearing in her maiden Paralympics, Lekhara, ranked fifth in the world, consistently shot 10s in both the competition stages.
She was set to obliterate the world record but two 9.9s towards the end cost her the feat.
In the qualification round, Lekhara had finished seventh with a total of 621.7.
Encouraged by her father to get involved in a sport, Lekhara initially tried both shooting and archery.
She found that she enjoyed shooting more, and was also inspired by 2008 Beijing Olympics gold-medallist Abhinav Bindra after reading his book.
She began shooting in 2015 at Jagatpura Sports Complex in Jaipur.
An Assistant Conservator of Forests in Rajasthan, Lekhara made her debut for India in 2017 World Cup in Al Ain, UAE.
Since 2017, the Indian government has supported Lekhara by including her in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) besides funding her training through the Annual Calendar for Training and Competition (ACTC).
With the help of this support, she has competed in 12 international competitions, attended national coaching camps with sports science support along with sports kit.
She also received financial assistance to install a computerised digital target at home, air rifle, ammunition and accessories.
The teenager’s performance was lauded by prime minister Narendra Modi.
“Phenomenal performance @AvaniLekhara! Congratulations on winning a hard-earned and well-deserved Gold, made possible due to your industrious nature and passion towards shooting. This is truly a special moment for Indian sports. Best wishes for your future endeavours,” Modi tweeted.
The PM also spoke to her over phone to personally congratulate her.
She will also be competing in the mixed 10m Air Rifle Prone SH1, the women’s 50m Rifle 3 Positions SH1 and the mixed 50m Rifle Prone event.