Aanchal Thakur started a journey that had seen her ski across the pristine slopes and created history as the first Indian to win a medal in an international skiing competition.
The first time Aanchal Thakur tried her hand at skiing as an energetic five-year-old, she got a home-made, albeitbasic, wooden ski to tackle the rugged snowy slopes in Manali. At seven, when her parents saw a glimmer of talent, she got her first pair of original skis.
It started her on a journey that has seen her ski across the pristine slopes in Austria, Korea, US, Switzerland, New Zealand, all beckoning her to whiz past! At the Alpine World Ski Championships at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, (February 2021), she came 47th (slalom) and 59th (giant slalom) in 107 participants(with little training due to the pandemic), and created history as the first Indian woman to participate.
The pandemic has changed training drastically as Aanchal did not have Europe as her training ground. Instead, she customised her fitness regime to a pandemic-friendly regime till travelling opens up again.
The bronze medal in the slalom at the Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup in Turkey in 2018, as the first Indian to get a medal, catapulted the enthusiastic hill town girl into the limelight. The prime minister, Sachin Tendulkar and many others congratulated her. Amid tears of joy, for her, it was not just about being victorious, but how the medal gave winter sports impetus. From then on, the peaks are her playing field as she continues to hone the skills, discipline and technique from her Olympian skier father, Roshan Thakur, an expert paraglider too, who is realising his unfulfilled dreams through her, her brother Himanshu and cousin Heeralal, also Olympians.Yes, the apple did not fall far from the tree.
Invigorated, the immense dedication Thakur exudes since she started competing in championships at 13, has grown during the pandemic even though skiing has literally come to a stand-still. She has taken part at the 2012 Youth Winter Olympics at the Slalom and Giant Slalom event, and the Gulmarg Khelo India 2020 where she won two golds in slalom and giant slalom.
“In India, we are unable to practice during the summer. Compared to European athletes where even in summer, there have glaciers to practice, we have little snow, and a few good days to practice. The higher peaks towards Rohtang, Bhrigu Lake, etc have ice during summer but the lower ones depend on snowfall. I usually train in Europe, at camps or on sponsorship as we don’t have infrastructure to train here. We need chair lifts, beta machines, etc,” admits the 24-year-old who sometimes manages only five rounds downhill compared to the 20 one can do in Europe, as she has to walk back all the way up to the peak to ski without chairlifts.
Thrilled that Winter sports was given a go-ahead by the government during Khelo India, she is saddened that there has been no great development for the past two years. “Especially in Manali, we have more problems in the Solang Valley. Auli and Gulmarg have good slopes, and Gulmarg’s infrastructure is great for training,” adds the athlete.
The Turkey medal, she admits was tough, as she had cut her hand badly from the edge of her skis, and was unable to compete in the slalom. “In slalom, the gates are closer together, 10 to 13 feet, and the skier has to hit the gates while passing. With my hand injured, I was unable to compete. But the giant slalom, where the gates are 30-35 feet apart and we do need to touch the gates is much faster. I put on a brave face and competed. A teammate’s words, ‘whatever happens, do not leave the race – think of it as preparation for the future,’ stuck with me. I was shocked at the result. It was unbelievable,” says Aanchal who is thankful she can practice and learn from her brother Himanshu too.
In the midst of the pandemic as she awaits a call for the Beijing Winter Olympics from the federation (Covid permitting), Aanchal is deep into fitness – over seven hours a day… snow permitting, she skis as do all hill children all day.She is concentrating on building her core, doing balance exercises and strengthening leg muscles. Learning core building from different sports is the new way forward in fitness, as tennis stars like World Number 10 Diego Schwartzman brought on a marathon coach to help with mental strength and fitness. So, with skiing, balance and leg strengthening are her focus, and Aanchal adds cycling, running, and yoga to the mix. She admits that she does not have the pre-requisites of a skier – a heavy body to help manoeuvre the skis. Instead, her focus is on technique and core.
“I am not very tall, just 5 feet, and in skiing the benefit of weight is immense. If the weight is more, there is greater pressure on the skis which makes the skis move faster. As I am unable build too much muscle mass, I concentrate on techniques,” says the Alpine skier.
She loves reading, hates TV, does yoga, paints, loves tending to her burgeoning flower garden, sings, makes arts and crafts, does WUSHU and treks often. People should try new things to break away from staying stuck during the pandemic, she feels. Hers is trying her hand at paragliding with her father teaching her.
A hill town girl at heart, she loves working in the fields which she laughs saying gives a tough workout – more than any gym can, “I help in our orchards and fields frequently. We grow rajma, sowing, weeding– it’s great for back and leg muscles, we cut apples twigs after harvest and stack wood, cut grass for fodder. In Manali, there is hardly any village girl that does not work in the fields!”
“For strengthening muscles, do a mixture of uphill cycling to build on the leg strength, or try running or even gardening! I work at the gym for two hours; beginners can start slow. For balance training, roller skating helps (an hour) as it strengthens leg and back muscles. And I do Yoga for an hour,” Aanchal adds.
The Alpine skier hopes to see winter sports gain traction, offering advice to beginners on stance. “Keep your body weight forward. Don’t bend the body to the ground, the stance has to be forward from your legs with the body and back straight, and arms forward. The eyes looking at least 15 metres in front, and don’t look down,” she concludes.
Dos and Don’ts on fitness
Many people emulate challenges on social media, which the body is not ready for, so desist from such challenges. Increase fitness levels slowly as doing something spontaneously could increase injury.
Both diet and training should feature in fitness, have a natural diet, stay away from oily food. Eat eggs, healthy fresh food and drink banana milk shakes. No protein supplements for her.
It is extremely important to stretch the whole body before warm-up. A 15-20 minute warm up helps. Especially for Aanchal who practices on the Manali slopes which are not smooth, thus the body is prone to sudden jerks.
Her warm-up includes 50 squats, and some skiing speed drills. Improvise, she says.
She works on slackline, has a balance board and Swiss ball – anyone at home can invest in this for fitness during lockdown.
If you can’t run, concentrate on exercises lying on your back, like leg raises, stretching glutes, and abdomen crunches, double leg and single leg abdominal presses, planks and cycling.
For body balance – balance on one foot on a step for a short period of time, and then switch from one foot to another with a jump. Repeat five times, and build.
For knee strength, try balance board exercise with weights which focus on different leg muscles.