If you ask a stranger on the street to describe the life of an 18-year-old, they might say something like “high-school graduate, going to college or getting a job.” In other words, becoming an adult.
But for champion archer Deepika Kumari, this milestone came much earlier than expected. Kumari left her village in Ratu, India, at just 12 years old and quickly became the number one female archer in the world by age 18.
The Netflix documentary “Ladies First” details Kumari’s story of growing up in a poverty-stricken area in India where women had limited options, to becoming the decorated archer she is today. Growing up, Kumari knew she would have no opportunities if she stayed in her village. There, the community believed the woman’s place was in the kitchen, and they should never work, play sports, or do anything that was a man’s job.
Kumari saw her family’s financial struggles. She decided to leave town and relieve her parents of the responsibility of feeding and supporting her. She travelled with her parents 80 miles on a scooter to Seraikella, India, to find the archery academy that housed its students for free. In the documentary, Kumari admits she didn’t go to the academy because she was interested in archery – she went because it was free. The passion for the sport came later.
Knowing Kumari had never shot archery a day in her life, the coach was understandably hesitant. Kumari bargained for her spot by saying, “Give me three months. If I’m not good enough by that point, you can kick me out of the academy.”
Three months came and went, and Kumari found she had been blessed with an arm for archery. She skyrocketed to the front of the class at the academy. A year later, Kumari was accepted into a larger, more prestigious archery program at TATA Archery Academy in Jamshedpur, India. She continued the path that would catapult her into archery stardom. Kumari trained hard and became celebrated as the number one archer in the world at 18 years old, a mere four years after picking up a bow for the first time.
Her skill landed her a trip to the Olympic Games in London in 2012. Unfortunately, her successful streak ended when she lost those games. She returned home to India where she was not greeted with any courtesies or praise, despite being an Olympic athlete. Kumari remarks in the documentary that despite having proven her abilities as a world-class archer, her neighbors still gossiped about her.
“They still taunt my parents,” Kumari says. “They say, ‘You shouldn’t have allowed your daughter to get into sports. You should’ve kept her at home’.”
After the London games, Kumari fell into a downhill spiral emotionally. She advocated for a mental coach for the Indian archery team – something she knew had been proven to help other teams. “Korean archers are mentally strong. It’s not that they are better skilled than us, just that they are mentally stronger,” she said.
Kumari kept pushing forward and went on to compete in the Olympic Games in Rio, where she was beat out in the round of 16. She still has countless World Cup medals to her name and the respect of archers everywhere.
Coming from a place where women are thought of as less-than, Kumari feels compelled to prove that women in India are capable of incredible athletic feats, including winning an Olympic gold medal. When she feels the pressure of gender inequality, Kumari says, “Often I feel like answering back, but then I feel if I respond with words, people might forget. But if I respond with my arrows, they’ll never forget.”
Kumari is an inspiration to all young girls who are told they can’t do what boys do, and to women who are constantly put down to lift men up. Her story is one of true passion, integrity, and pure grit. Keep your eye on Tokyo 2020, because you haven’t seen the last of the archery powerhouse that is Deepika Kumari.
Wondering if you have what it takes? It all starts at the archery range. Find the one nearest you to begin your journey.