Indian women, though traditionally athletic, shied away from participating in international and even national sporting events and competitions for a very long time. Starting from the 1980s, however, came this new crop of women who not only dared to conquer their dreams, but also put India on the global sports map. Most of them came from rural India and excelled in sports that have traditionally been India’s strengths. Here is the story of 10 such Indian women who have gone to claim international accolades in the world of sports.
MC Mary Kom
Born in 1983, in the state of Manipur, Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom (MC Mary Kom) put India on the map of international women’s boxing. Coming from a family of impoverished farm labourers, Mary Kom pursued her dream of becoming a boxer against all odds. She was the only woman boxer from the country to qualify for the 2012 London Summer Olympics and there she bagged the bronze medal in the flyweight category. In 2014, she won the women’s boxing gold medal at the Asian Games held at Incheon. This five-time Women’s World Amateur Boxing champion winner has made India proud and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2013.
Sania Mirza is now one of India’s most famous sportspersons. Born in 1986 in Hyderabad, Mirza became India’s national tennis sensation at quite a young age. Her international career, however, has been nothing short of stellar. Mirza is currently ranked No. 1 in the world in women’s doubles tennis. Sania Mirza played international singles tennis between 2003 and 2013 and registered many notable wins (including those against Svetlana Kuznetsova, Martina Hingis, and Nadia Petrova), making her the 27th seeded player in the world in 2007. She was among the most featured and best paid sportspersons of India, having bagged 4 gold medals in the 2003 Afro-Asian Games of Hyderabad, and various medals at differed Asian Games between 2002 and 2014. Following her wrist injury, Mirza focused on her doubles career and after a streak of spectacular wins, went on to claim the 2015 Wimbledon Championships along with Martina Hingis.
India’s illustrious daughter, Saina Nehwal was born in 1990. After Prakash Padukone, badminton in India experienced a major slump till Nehwal took on the responsibility of restoring India its rightful place on top of the world. Nehwal is currently ranked No. 1 in the 2015 Badminton World Federation Women’s Singles rankings. She bagged the bronze medal for women’s badminton at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Apart from winning various other accolades in international badminton circuits, Nehwal became the first from the country to win the World Junior Badminton Championships in 2009. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010.
PT Usha, or Payyoli Express as she is better known, was among the first Indian sportswomen to claim international spotlight. Qualifying for the Moscow Olympics as early as 1980, she showed Indian women that they are capable of getting to the helm of international sports. She won 5 gold medals and a bronze medal at the Asian Athletic Meet of Jakarta in 1985 and in the following year, she won 4 gold medals and a silver at the Asian Games held in Seoul. PT Usha became a youth icon of the 1980s and 1990s, bringing not only women but athletics to the forefront.
Boxing, weight lifting, and wrestling in India have been sports that were dominated by men for decades. 1975-born Karnam Malleshwari from Andhra Pradesh dreamed of making a foray into weight lifting and representing her country in international meets. This she did with élan as she won three silver medals in women’s weightlifting at the Asian Championships in Thailand in 1992. In 1998, she won a silver medal at the Asian Games held in Bangkok. Later, in 2000, she also bagged a bronze medal at the Sydney Summer Olympic games. Apart from a number of national championships, Malleshwari also won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999.
Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat, born in 1969 in Maharashtra, is another woman who rose meteorically and put Indian sportswomen in the global spotlight. Bhagwat’s list of international wins is a long one, but the most noteworthy among these is her 2003 World Cup Finals victory at the Air Rifle event and her 2002 World Cup Final silver medal. Apart from these, she also set new records and won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games of 2002 in both the Air Rifle and the Sports 3P events.
Saba Anjum Karim
Despite a recent declaration by the Ministry of Sports that it is not our national game, hockey has been India’s favourite sport for many decades now. Taking India’s women’s hockey team to the forefront is Saba Anjum Karim. Karim was born in 1985 in the state of Chhattisgarh. Saba Anjum led her team into many international competitions and won for India, the gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, and the 2004 Asia Cup held in Delhi, apart from bagging the bronze at the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha.
Born in 1968, in Imphal (state – Manipur), Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi desired to be a weightlifting champion from an early age. Braving much opposition for her love of a sport not traditionally preferred by Indian women, she went on to win many international accolades starting with three silver medals at the 1989 World Women’s Weightlifting Championship, held at Manchester. She won a number of medals in international competitions, including a gold at the 1995 Commonwealth Championships, two gold medals at the 1995 Asian Weightlifting Championship in South Africa, and a gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Back home, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2011.
Anju Bobby George
Born in 1977 in the southern state of Kerala, Anju Bobby George exhibited great love for sports and athletics from an early age. After winning a number of titles within the country, George first made a mark in international sports when she bagged the long jump bronze medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester. She created news when she won the bronze at the 2003 World Athletics Championships, held in Paris. Later in 2005, she also claimed the gold medal for her long jump performance at the IAAF World Athletics Final. Back home, George was awarded the Arjuna Award in 2002 and continues to be an inspiration for sportswomen in the country.
Born in 1995 in Hyderabad, PV Sindhu is another badminton star from India to watch out for. She has won numerous medals at international badminton championships, including the women’s singles bronze at the World Championships in both 2013 and 2014, bronze at the 2014 Incheon Asian games, bronze at the 2014 Asia Championships and a gold medal at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games. In 2014, Sindhu was ranked No. 9 in the World Women’s Badminton Rankings and is currently ranked No 13.