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At the recent national championships for sport climbing, Shivani Charak, the fastest to scale the wall, stood proudly on the podium wearing a torn shoe.

“My shoe was slightly torn in the front and I slipped a couple of times," says Charak, on the phone from her hometown, Jammu. But, ranked No.1 in the country, it was her title at the 25th National Sport Climbing Championship to lose and a faulty shoe wasn’t going to stop her. The 18-year-old went on to win gold medals in speed climbing and bouldering and a silver in lead climbing at the Nationals held in Bhubaneswar from 6-10 January.

Charak, who sweats more about the price of a single pair of spanking new shoes, is quick to shrug off the footwear malfunction. After all, she has faced, and conquered, much bigger challenges .

At the age of 9, Charak was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and spent close to three years in treatment.

“There was a time when I could not even drink a drop of water on my own, my family had to do everything for me," she recalls. “At first, my family didn’t tell me how serious it was, but once I had to enter chemotherapy I understood the severity of the situation. At times, when I was in the hospital and feeling very weak, I would think I won’t make it."

With medical facilities just about basic in Jammu, her family had to take her to Chandigarh for treatment. Her parents had to stay on in Jammu to keep their jobs (their father is a college teacher and mother, a staff nurse) and look after the family. Charak has three siblings—elder sister Shilpa and twin brothers Arun and Ajay. So rather than moving to Chandigarh, they visited the city every six months for chemotherapy.

Even though there were many days she would be too weak to even lift a spoon, Charak remembers the time she found her inner strength.

“At the age of 10, I had to undergo surgery," she says. “My parents had just stepped out, I think to get medicines, when the doctors came to take me to the operation theatre. They had brought a bed to wheel me in but I said, ‘No, I want to walk there on my own and see what the place is like.’" So she did.

The surgery was successful and by the time she was 12, Charak had been given a clean bill of health.

Her sister, a year older, had discovered sport climbing by then. But she was reluctant for the still-frail Shivani to have a go at it. After her father sought permission from the doctor, Charak was free to pursue it. But there was a snag.

“I didn’t quite know where the climbing wall was," she says. “So one day, my brothers followed my sister and found out where it was—at a school called Apple Kids. We landed up there and watched from the sidelines. We told the coach even we wanted to climb and he was game enough to give us a go."

In the first school competition that Charak entered, she won silver, while her sister, who was slotted in the same category, claimed gold. Despite meagre resources, the Charak siblings have risen steadily through the ranks. First through local tournaments, and then at the district, state and zonal levels, they are now consistent performers at the national level. At the National championships in Bhubaneswar in January, Shivani wasn’t the only medallist in the family. Her brother, Arun, won two silver medals while Ajay won bronze in bouldering in the junior category at the Nationals in January. Shilpa competed too but didn’t feature in the medal tally.

“I usually train with my brothers," says Charak. “We don’t really have a coach so we teach each other, or learn from videos. Also, Jammu doesn’t really have a good climbing wall, the one we have is only for beginners. So whenever I have to go for competitions, I go and train either in Delhi or Bhubaneswar for 10 days. In Delhi, it’s usually at the IMF (Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body for mountaineering and allied sports) facility. A lot of people from the Army also train there, so they also help me."

Shivani Charak has taught herself one-finger push-ups
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Shivani Charak has taught herself one-finger push-ups (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Though competing in an international sport, Charak has to rely on her own faculties to improve her fitness. She goes on 10km runs, hits the gym if necessary and has also taught herself one-finger push-ups.

“I can do two-finger, one-finger push-ups," she says proudly. “Also pull-ups with weights. All my physical training is done at home in Jammu. I watch videos, to see what all exercises are required to be a good sport climber."

Even though her family is vegetarian, they have set up a small kitchen outside so that the teenager gets her dose of protein—mainly chicken and eggs. These had become a prerequisite of her diet as her body recovered from the toxic cancer treatment.

With funds and sponsorships few and far between, the Charak siblings’ climbing career is still funded mainly by the family. “It can be a very expensive sport," says Charak. “In 2019, I was selected for a world event but could not go since I didn’t have the funds. Our shoes alone cost 10,000 at least, and we need at least one pair monthly. That’s why I couldn’t really ask for new shoes from my parents for the Nationals, because they had already spent a lot last year. And if they get shoes for me, they have to do so for my siblings as well."

Sport climbing, thougha niche sport in India, gained traction when it was included in the Olympic charter—it will make its debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games in July-August. To some extent, this has helped raise awareness about the sport, but it hasn’t opened many training avenues for climbers in India.

“But the number of competitions has increased," says Charak. “Earlier, we used to have maybe one-two competitions. Now we have up to six tournaments, including zonal, state and nationals. But there still hasn’t been a surge in coaching or training facilities. Every year, we get to train in a national camp for only one month, and that’s before the Asian Youth Championship."

This year, though, with Bengaluru playing host to the tournament, the IMF decided to hold a two-month camp ahead of the Asian Youth Championship in December. Whether it was a direct effect of that increased training or not, Charak won a medal at an international event for the first time. She won a bronze in the junior speed climbing event, finished fourth in lead climbing and fifth in bouldering.

“I put a lot of effort into my sport," she says. “Ever since I started competing, I have always wanted to win international medals. It’s a very proud moment for me and for all those who have supported me."

The big picture, though, is now dominated by the Olympics. It is a distant dream, but Charak will have her final opportunity to make the cut for Tokyo at the IFSC Asian Championships in Chongqing from 25 April-3 May.

“I have a chance," says the 18-year-old earnestly. “I will try my best." In her mind, no wall is too high.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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