Every time she sees a sportsperson hold up a cup, Prathima Hegde’s eyes fill up. “Sport gives you a high that few other things can. When you compete, a win is as emotional as it gets,” says Hegde.
She should know. Hegde is the national bowling champion, a dramatic achievement for someone who started bowling quite by accident.
The fast lane: Ranked first in India, Prathima Hegde is now looking at international tournaments. Hemant Mishra
In 1999, two years after she got married, she and her husband, R. Kannan, went to a bowling alley in Bangalore with friends. “When I bowled for the first time then, I did well. It just came naturally to me,” remembers Hegde. Kannan took to the game too.
What began as a weekend leisure activity soon became a frequent indulgence. The couple went at least three times a week, and soon Hegde’s name would figure constantly on the board that announced the highest scores.
But the high scores meant little to her. “I didn’t even know one could go professional. I had never heard of the bowling federation in India, for instance,” says Hegde. In 2000, with a nudge from her husband and consistent scores to back her, she participated in the national tenpin bowling championship for a “lark”.
In 2003, after the birth of her daughter, Annika, Hegde decided to take the game more seriously. She won the bronze medal in the 2005 nationals.
From then on, there was no holding back. “A bunch of us were interested in bowling, so we started inviting international coaches to train us,” says Hegde, stressing that it was only then that her technique improved. Kannan kept up his interest in bowling too—he helped start the Karnataka State Tenpin Bowling Association in 2003 and played professionally till 2005. Today he is the secretary general of the Ten-pin Bowling Federation of India.
Recalls Hegde: “When I began, I used to let the ball roll straight. I would manage to get the pins, but there was no beauty in the method. Over the years, and now more so than ever before, I take great pride in how well I can control the trajectory of the ball.”
Her performance at international tournaments has improved as well. “When we participated in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, India didn’t even figure in the first half of the list. We were all so disappointed,” she says. But that has changed in the last two years.
After scoring the highest among women at the Asian Indoor Games in 2007, which she did not win, Hegde says international players now walk up to compliment her on her game. “When Indians initially participated in events, people hardly noticed our presence. Now, we are seen as competition,” she says, smiling.
Hegde is aware that this sport will not have the luxury of big sponsorships. “But we do have some individuals who have contributed enough to make training schedules possible,” she says, pointing out that even the balls which are custom-made for different players in Malaysia can cost up to Rs10,000 per piece.
In 2009, Hegde spent six months training in Malaysia. The time and effort, she says, paid off and resulted in her winning the gold at the national championship. Now, she can’t remember a life without bowling.
A short-distance runner in school and college, Hegde’s relationship with sport has been a long one, but even that, she says, didn’t prepare her for the the mental strength that long hours of training and tournaments required. “Much more than the happiness of winning, this has made me a stronger person,” says Hegde.
Which is probably why she wishes there were more women bowlers in India. “It’s a sport that is gender-free. The average scores for both men and women are not far apart,” she says, adding that although the sport does require basic levels of fitness to last long hours at the lanes, it isn’t rigorous on the body. “I am 39 and still raring to go. This is a sport that is independent of age. The Asian Games have 12 medals in this category. I don’t see why people shouldn’t be rushing towards bowling, especially since it’s still in a nascent stage,” she says.
“I don’t allow myself to be conscious of being a woman. Whenever I play, I compete like a guy,” she says, grinning. It’s the same advice she gives Annika. A budding tennis player, the eight-year-old participated in the under-10 Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association tournament and plays without inhibition. “Lack of inhibition is what young women must achieve,” says Hegde.
Having reached the top of her game at the national level, Hegde is now looking at winning international tournaments. “I will get there. I just need another couple of years of consistent training.”