Winter sports is yet to come of age in India but over the past decade or so, the landscape is slowly, but surely, changing.
At the heart of this growing passion is a bunch of athletes, who opted to go against the tide to pursue their passion for winter sports. Short track ice skater Akash Aradhya is one of them.
Born in Mysuru, Karnataka, Akash Aradhya began his career as a roller-skater but slowly transitioned to ice skating. The journey has been intriguing.
“My parents were very passionate, and they wanted me to pursue some kind of sports just as a hobby,” Akash Aradhya told Olympics.com.
“When I was around three-years-old, we were crossing a skating rink and I was intrigued by the bright fluorescent halide gears kids wore. It was back in 1995-96 and roller skating was a new thing. That’s how it all started.”
What initially started as a hobby slowly got more serious with his parents’ unwavering support. “The first goal was like, okay, play at the nationals, maybe get a medal.” The goals, though, got bigger and bigger as Akash Aradhya kept on competing.
“Then I was like, represent India once at least, just once and just be happy. The more I competed, it opened up more perspectives for me in terms of what I wanted to achieve in the sport,” Akash Aradhya said.
The turning point
The Mysuru skater was conferred with the Eklavya Award by the government of Karnataka for his achievements in roller skating.
In 2006, though, a visit to Kolkata amusement park paved a new path for Akash Aradhya.
“The place was called Clown Town and it had a small ice-skating rink. I didn't even have the right set of blades for ice skating. But we did some jugaad (makeshift arrangement) and just went into the rink. It felt weird,” Aradhya recollected.
“I was not really a good inline skater back then, so I wasn’t naturally good at it but something about going through the corners had a feel to it. You expect to slip once you step on ice but once you actually do it, it’s different. You start moving in a different way, it’s like you are floating inside. I won an ice-skating nationals bronze in Kolkata shortly after.”
In his bid to hold onto that special feeling, Akash Aradhya slowly transitioned into ice skating full time and has gone on to represent India in several International Skating Union (ISU) World Championships and World Cups.
A flag-bearer for India
The absence of proper training infrastructure in India even prompted Akash Aradhya to move away from home to train abroad. He has been to Canada and Germany and was recently based in France with the French national team.
The highlight of his ice skating and sporting career, Akash Aradhya feels, was being India’s flag bearer at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Japan.
“Months before the Asian Games I fell severely sick and had to return home. I had to be hospitalised and took a while to recover. After I returned to Canada to resume my training, I was struggling and it was a race against time to get ready for the Asian Games.
“I knew I couldn’t qualify for the Winter Olympics in 2018 but I really wanted to compete at the Asian Games. I slowly got ready. Then out of the blue, I got an email from my federation, which said we're going to make you the flag bearer of India. I just did not believe it. I think I went through the same email, five times.
“Then the day came and I held our country's flag and I choked. I was so nervous. Just walking down that aisle with our country's flag and the whole team behind me in front of a packed crowd was the biggest moment for me.
“After the flag bearing ceremony, we had an oath taking ceremony. I was standing there in the centre and I realised the whole circle was filled with Olympic gold medallists. And at that moment I said to myself, you know what, no matter what I went through, no matter how difficult it has been, at the end of the day, it was worth it.”
Another long-standing ambition for Akash Aradhya was to represent India at the Winter Olympics. While his ailment was a big blow to his bid to make it to the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, a spine injury in 2019 and COVID-19 came as another setback for his ambitions for the Beijing 2022 edition.
Akash Aradhya mulling retirement?
The 28-year-old skater hinted he won’t be taking another shot at achieving his Olympics dream.
“I would never say anything is impossible because there are athletes at the age of 34-35, winning Olympic gold medals. But at this point, personally, it’s a no for me because there are a lot of things I need to focus on because I've been away from my family for too long.
“I want to give them the time and I've missed out on a lot of things in the last five and a half, six years, and I want to catch up I’ve spent only three birthdays and Diwalis at home in the past 10 years,” Akash Aradhya stated.
Akash Aradhya, however, is confident India have plenty of talent to carry the torch forward even if he doesn’t return for the next Olympic cycle.
“I think Indians can make miracles. Trust me, in India, we don’t lack in talent. Of course, money plays a big part in all of these things. It's difficult. But if you show up, if you talk to people, if you make the effort, I think you can do it,” he signed off.