On the serene slopes of Gulmarg, winter sports athletes get a rare opportunity

Excess snowfall, and schedule delays and changes, could not dampen the spirits around Gulmarg’s ski slopes, where plush green meadows have made way for serene white snow, as the third edition of the Khelo India Winter Games kicked off on Friday.

“I’m excited to compete here,” Sheikh Mohsin Farooq, a national-level skier from Jammu and Kashmir, said. “I’ve been skiing since 2013, in Gulmarg and other areas of Kashmir, but I have hardly seen this level of excitement for these (winter) games.”

The KIWG is one of the few, if not only, national-level multi-sport winter games, where athletes from all over the country get a chance to showcase what winter sports – often overlooked in the Indian sports scene – are all about.

For many, just the opportunity to experience an organised winter sports competition is big. “I think it’s huge for us to be able to represent winter sports, since the Ladakh region, naturally, has a lot of athletes,” Sajjad Hussain said.

Sajjad is a track and field athlete, regularly practicing marathons and sprints, but he is in Gulmarg to take part in the snowshoe running event. He also spends time coaching up-and-coming athletes in his home state of Ladakh, where he thinks the youth can be boosted by the opportunity to play in national-level events.

“Since we became a Union Territory, we get to send a team to these games,” he said. “When young athletes get to take part in these events, and they see and meet some of India’s best, there is no better way to motivate them.”

While areas in parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Kashmir, are homes to recreational skiing, winter sports happen to be a relatively unknown avenue to aspirational sportspersons, with big questions around the feasibility of hosting these events, and pursuing them professionally.

Shiva Keshavan, a six-time Winter Olympian for India, was present at the opening of the KIWG, and believes that some of those questions have been answered by the turnout in Gulmarg.

“The interest in this event shows there is a solid following, and potential. And the sheer number of athletes – so many that it has been a logistical challenge to accommodate everyone – shows there is plenty of passion,” he told The Indian Express. Around 1500 athletes, in 29 different sports, are set to participate according to the event programme.

“This is a movement that needs to grow… Sports can be a vehicle of development, and this region can be the home of winter sports,” he added.

Shiva added that winter sports are a great way to work on fitness and physical development for those pursuing other sports as well. “So many athletes are here from states that do not have mountains or snow, they have been participating in these games as endurance training,” he said.

Sajjad, who represented Ladakh in track and field at the 2022 National Games, agrees. “Due to the snow, it is hard for me to train in the winter months. But what two or two-and-a-half hours of running does for my training, I can do in one hour of snowshoe (walking over snow with snowshoes),” he said.

Olympic dream

The Winter Olympics found a mention on more than one occasion at the opening ceremony of the KIWG. While there may be a long way to go for India to have a strong presence at that level, there are many who are dreaming of following in Shiva’s footsteps, and going one further by winning the country medals.

14-year-old Jiah Aryan is one of those young athletes, having represented India at various international age-group races, even winning gold at the Montenegro Skiing Competition in January. Jiah’s potential indicates plenty of promise, but honing her talent comes with challenges of its own.

Hailing from Karnataka, she needs to travel for every bit of her training, for which she often comes to Gulmarg, but also works with coaches and academies in Austria, Serbia, and Montenegro. At the moment, she has been spending six months of the year competing and training, and six months focusing on academics and other activities. Her parents have been financially supporting her through it all.

“Jiah has found this dream herself, and she has shown motivation and commitment to pursue this sport professionally. Our family has been committed to one thing ever since – getting that Olympic medal,” her father, Aryan IC, said.

The huge costs, visa issues, and constant acclimatisation to new climates and cultures have taken a toll on the family, who are planning on sending Jiah abroad full-time soon. “A race is a race, and getting the chance to compete in her own country definitely helps,” Aryan said.

This writer is in Gulmarg on the invitation of the Sports Authority of India (SAI).

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