To define who an emerging athlete is in an Olympic-Paralympic year can be a long-winded exercise. To narrow it down to one name is even tougher.
Is it the junior who punched above their weight? Is it the teen who competes along with world champions? Is it the youngster who broke through at the international level and raised expectations?
The three young women who made it to the final list were chosen on a simple principle — teen talent tested at the toughest of tournaments, promising performances that meant more for Indian sport than the result on paper.
A Paralympic champion. A World Athletics Junior Championships silver medallist. A standout player in a team sport that narrowly missed an Olympic medal.
Different as the circumstances that won them the medals or matches were, what binds Avani Lekhara, Shaili Singh and Salima Tete is not their defining victory of 2021, but rather the promise their achievements hold for the future. They have set a standard for their respective sports – para-shooting, athletics and hockey – with their breakthrough performances in 2021.
Shaili Singh, 17, became India’s first medallist in long jump at the Athletics World U-20 Championships in Nairobi in August. With a jump of 6.59m, she fell short of gold medal by a mere centimetre.
But her feat was not about what she missed, instead what she fulfilled.
Ever since she was 15 and breaking records in national junior events, Shaili, the daughter of a single mother from Jhansi, was seen as the next Anju Bobby George. Indeed, even Anju – still the only Indian to win a medal at the Athletics World Championships – sees herself in young Shaili.
She and her coach (and husband) Robert Bobby George scouted Shaili when she was only 13 and not even among the medallists in the local meet. There was something about the then-frail youngster who they later trained in Bengaluru. And the astute eyes of the Indian long jump experts were not amiss. Shaili has grown into one of India’s most promising track and field athletes and her U20 Worlds medal is more proof of that.
Even before Neeraj Chopra had breached the athletics Olympic medal mark for Indian sport, Shaili was seen as the hope for that once-elusive achievement. With a renewed focus on Indian athletics now, she is definitely someone to watch out for, perhaps beginning from the Commonwealth and Asian Games next year.
Shooter Avani Lekhara created history as she became the first Indian woman to win gold at the Paralympics. She was also the first shooter from India to win a medal at the Games. She followed her women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 gold with a bronze in women’s 50m rifle 3-Positions SH1; another first for an Indian woman. And she did all this while on a wheelchair.
A car accident in 2012 injured her spinal cord. Picking up a borrowed rifle in 2015, inspired by former Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography, she went on to emulate Bindra in 2021 at just 19 years old.
In Tokyo, Avani won two medals in the four events she competed in across the 10m and 50m disciplines – a physically gruelling balancing act for the best of rifle shooters. But for a wheelchair-bound teen who needs assistance with daily activities and is coming a year off lockdown on the biggest of stages in a nerve-wracking sport, it’s an incredible challenge. Avani accomplished it with impressive composure and core strength.
Her age, her ability and her achievements in her debut Games already set her apart and the 20-year-old Khel Ratna winner is sure to only aim higher going forward.
To single out an individual player who didn’t score a goal in a team sport that didn’t medal at the Olympics can be an anomaly in any list of achievers. But Salima Tete, the youngest player in the Indian women’s hockey team that finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, stands out because of her integral role in the team’s historic journey.
The midfielder, who turned 20 in December, was seen as a potential future star early on. She made her senior debut as a teenager, was captain of the silver-winning team at the Youth Olympics in 2018 and became a national regular in 2019.
Only 19 before the Tokyo Games, she already had 29 caps to her name and was trusted as an attacking midfielder. Her role behind the goals and the PC for an Indian side that stunned Australia with aggression and speed cannot be understated.
Even in a relatively young unit, the speedy Tete is a strong long-term prospect for Indian hockey and the experience she has gained reaching the bronze-medal match in her first Olympics will prove to be a big asset in the future.