Sweta Shahi might only be 19 but she has already achieved a lot on her journey from a rural village in north-east India to becoming an international sevens player.
Shahi had never heard of the sport when she was spotted by the Bihar state rugby secretary during an athletics’ meet that she was participating in.
The official was impressed with the youngster’s speed. Having carried out some research on YouTube and Facebook, she was in turn attracted to the new sport by the risk of contact – and her potential to avoid it.
“The rugby secretary in my state introduced me to the sport and said ‘You have the qualities to be a good rugby player’,” Shahi said.
“He explained the basic rules of the sport to me – that you had to pass the ball backwards – and I was taken to the physical aspect.
“I thought my agility and speed to evade tackles would help me succeed in the sport.”
Inspired by Norton
Shahi subsequently became the only woman from Bihar, India’s third-most populous state, to be summonsed for a national training camp in 2013 and has gone on to represent her country at Asia Rugby events.
But behind that success has been a mountain of hard work. Unable to access coaching of any kind, Shahi immersed herself in video tutorials that she found on social media.
As a budding winger, she paid particular attention to the exploits of Dan Norton on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, studying how the England speedster used his pace to dodge tackles and score tries.
“He was my inspiration,” she admitted with a wide smile. “Number four!”
With the support of her father, who is a farmer, the pair devised training regimes that Shahi could follow with her brother in order to work on the skills that she would need.
Her father became something of a mentor, and when she is back at home the pair still wake early in order to cycle six kilometres to the local school where he coaches her.
But not every member of Shahi’s family has been as approving of her desire to follow her sporting dreams. Her uncle did not agree with her athletic pursuit, but he was perplexed by Shahi’s decision to switch to rugby – worried it would prohibit her from getting married.
“My uncle has never been supportive of my sport,” she said.
“It’s unheard of for women to take up sport and let alone a contact sport. But my father and grandfather were always very supportive, and initially when I was excelling at athletics and from then to now they have always said ‘do what you like’.
“And since I am doing very well, they are very happy about it. But the general consensus was I shouldn’t take up rugby because it will lead to a lot of injuries and I might be a burden to the family because of financial problems.
Grateful for support
“My uncle still says ‘who will marry you if you play rugby, give up the sport and I will provide whatever you require’.”
Shahi’s sister was married at 18 and six years later, has two children. She knows that it is what is ultimately expected of her too when she returns to her home village, but she is determined to have a long and successful time in rugby first.
Of her uncle’s attitude, Shahi added: “I’ve always ignored what he had to say. As long as I have my father’s blessings, that’s all I need.”
But she is well aware that not everyone in her position would have been able to count on the support of their father and grandfather.
“It’s the mindset of people, especially in smaller towns and villages, where women are homemakers and not supposed to go into sport,” she said.
“They aren’t seen as sports people. So, I have sort of broken that barrier, one of the few who have gone into sport where others would say ‘OK, give up sport it’s time to raise a family’.
“Women sometimes aren’t even educated or put into school.
“Their job is to start the families and become a homemaker. So, sport is never given as a priority.”
Since she took up rugby, Shahi has witnessed a rise in the number of girls who are willing to join her on her cycle from her village, and further afield, to training sessions at the local school.
She has grand ambitions for the game in India, too.
Shahi admitted it was her “ultimate dream” to help her country qualify to play sevens at the Olympic Games – although she is under no illusion how unlikely that might seem.
“It’s going to take a lot of effort but collectively if we all put our minds to it we can achieve it,” she said. “Hopefully one day.”
More importantly than an appearance at the Olympic Games, it is Shahi’s aim to help change perceptions towards women and girls who want to pick up a rugby ball in India.
“The men’s game is very popular comparatively to the women’s game. I want to bridge that gap and also in India, specifically, women aren’t given that much of an opportunity in sport.
“I want to break down that barrier and change the mindset and perception.”
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