Badass Woman spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender.
Deepika Kumari understands the power of play. The 23-year-old, born into abject poverty in rural East India, went searching for food one day and stumbled upon archery at a local sports academy, where she was handed a bow and arrow. Within four years, she became the sport’s top athlete worldwide.
Kumari’s story is the subject of Ladies First, Netflix’s new, award-winning documentary, which charts the young athlete’s journey to the 2016 Rio Olympics and the cultural, familial, and economic challenges she overcame to get there. India is a country in which 48% of girls in rural areas get married as children. In 2012, it was deemed the worst G20 country for women to live in. Kumari also faced pushback from her parents, who were unsupportive of her new hobby at first. But when she won the 1th Youth World Archery Championship in Utah in 2009, their attitude began to shift.
Kumari went on to compete in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, becoming a powerful female role model for young girls in India and changing the sports landscape in her country. Here, the archer, who is training hard for Tokyo 2020, speaks with InStyle about how she achieves mental toughness and learned to stand up for what she wants.
The importance of sports: Sports changed Kumari’s life, helping her find her sense of self-confidence and worth. “It was my accidental way out of poverty, arranged marriage, and child rearing before the age of 18,” she says. “My dream growing up was to fly on the airplanes, and thanks to archery, I was able to fulfill that dream and create so many more. The biggest lesson sport has taught me is to never give up and to always continue fighting, no matter how many times you fall down.”
Making news for the first time: Kumari always sensed there was something bigger out there for her. “Every morning, my father would read the newspaper and whenever anyone from our state would make headlines, he would beam with pride and point it out to me as an achievement,” she says. “He gave up so much for me and supported my dreams, which is so rare in my village that I wanted to make him proud and show him that his belief in me was justified—that his daughter could also one day be in the newspapers.” Kumari’s name first appeared in the news after she won the Youth World Archery Championship, held in Ogden, Utah, in 2009. A friend of her father’s showed him the local news article, but he refused to believe it, thinking it must have been someone else’s daughter.
Finding resilience after an Olympic setback: After the 2012 London Olympics, in which Kumari competed for the first time but did not medal, she fell into a deep depression. “I was only 18, and this was the first time I had ever been to London in my life,” she says. “I didn't even know the Olympics came only once in four years. It took a long time and a lot of work on myself to get over that first-round loss in London.” For some time, Kumari could not even pick up her bow and arrow, but eventually she realized she didn’t want to give up. The experience made her driven to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic Gold medal, which she hopes to achieve in Tokyo in 2020. She is currently ranked fifth in her sport in the world. “It taught me to concentrate just on my game and not on what people say about me,” she adds. “I had to grow a thicker skin to come back.”
Women fighting back: Kumari believes that it’s essential for women to stand up for what they want. “I think women, especially in our part of the world, are always discouraged from pursuing a path or career that is unknown and outside of what women are ‘meant to do,’’ she says. “We are always told 'no,' and it is crucial we start breaking these bonds and fighting for our dreams and for a better, more fulfilling life.” Kumari put that belief into action when she convinced her local sports academy to let her train with them, on a trial basis, although she had no experience. “If I had not begged for my 3-month trial, I would be married with children now.”
On how to become mentally tough: There’s a gender gap in India (in 2015, India was ranked 130 of 155 in the UN’s gender inequality index), which adds to the cultural adversity Kumari and other women athletes in her country face—which is why she sought out mental coaching. “In our part of the world, women are taught to believe we are not good enough,” she says. “In my village, if you are lucky enough to go to school, you have to come home afterward while the boys play sports and games on the street to help your mother wash, clean, and cook. Girls are seen as an economic loss and a cost to the family due to dowries, while boys will end up working and bringing money into the house. Mental coaching is necessary to undo all the subtle damage our society places on girls. During major tournaments, like the Olympics, there is huge mental pressure. Unless we are taught to deal with this and feel worthy of being up against the rest of the world, there is no way we will be able to win.”
Learning to demand respect: Because she does not yet have an Olympic medal, Kumari believes she hasn’t yet been granted a certain level of recognition at home. “Being a woman in India, unless I win that medal, no one will take me seriously, and I will constantly need to prove myself,” she says. “I definitely feel there is a huge disparity between athletes that do well at the Olympics and those that don't. It is not just monetarily but also in terms of respect.”
Dreaming big: Kumari hopes her story will inspire young girls and give them the strength and the belief to dream big. “I hope they look at my story and say, ‘If she could do it, so can I,’” Kumari says. “Even if girls don’t become athletes, sport has the power to inspire confidence, self-esteem, team building, endurance, and gender equality. I hope girls are inspired to play sports after watching my story, as it can lead to wonderful life-changing experiences.”
What’s next: Kumari is currently training hard for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, keeping in mind the lessons she learned in both London and Rio. “I am still only 23 so by the next Olympics, I will be 26,” she says, “and at my prime.”