A Female Athlete From India Is Changing the Way We Look at Sports
Lieutenant Khushali Purohit, the first woman from her city to become a Super Randonneur, wants us to know that you can train and succeed, all by yourself.
There’s an immediate sense of unease at the thought of a lone woman walking down Indian streets. India’s public spaces have been infamously reported for being unsafe, threatening and unequal—“planned for men, by men”, according to this recent report. But Lieutenant (Lt) Khushali Purohit of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), posted at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, is changing our minds about this.
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A cyclist, runner and mountaineer, Lt Purohit, 36, became the first female rider from Ahmedabad to complete the Brevet des Randonneurs Mondiaux (BRM), one of the most challenging and prestigious cycling championships in the world, and win the title of Super Randonneur (a title earned by a cyclist who finishes 200, 300, 400 and 600 kms in 40 hours in one calendar year) last year. Before that, she was a part of Limca Book of Records for cycling from Kullu to Khardungla (world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 kms) in 2013, and was named in the Guinness World Records for her participation in the Satara Hill Half Marathon in 2017, among several other accomplishments.
And this has come after years of training—day and night, in rain, cold or heat—alone.
As she gears up for her next milestone this August—the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) long-distance cycling event that covers 1,200 kms in 90 hours, which only those can take up who’ve won the randonneuring event in the PBP calendar year that starts from October—I voice the most common question: How did she do it? “Yes, I have had to venture out by myself a lot during endurance cycling or running—often at nights. In my area, people look at me in a very weird way. I get a lot of comments too, which I ignore,” Lt Purohit tells me over the phone from Ahmedabad.
As someone who trains and participates independently, she doesn’t dismiss the challenges of training as a woman in India. “But women should still persist,” she tells me doggedly. “In every sport, there aren’t many women. It’s the same for the sports activities that I am in now. Maybe there’s low awareness, or something is stopping them from coming forward. But they should.” During competitions too, Lt Purohit is almost always surrounded by men. “But I’ve never felt awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, I feel like if men can do it, so can I. I compete with them,” she says.
From the beginning, Lt Purohit’s parents have pushed her, along with her twin sister and elder brother, towards sports. “ Bachpan se hi bohot accha mahaul raha hai ghar pe (Home has provided a very good environment since childhood),” she says. Born and brought up in Ahmedabad, Lt Purohit joined the NCC in school as a cadet and was commissioned as a lieutenant after graduating from the Officers Training Academy in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, in 2015. The following year, she was selected as an officer-in-charge of the Gujarat contingent for the Republic Day Camp in New Delhi. At the moment, Lt Purohit is imparting her learnings to the young NCC cadets—both boys and girls—in the form of “patriotic training” with a “character-building focus”.
As you read this, Lt Purohit is probably hard at work with a training schedule that she draws up herself every week, without any coach. Every day, she alternates between running, cycling and strength training at the gym. “Of course, I take a lot of guidance from other groups and individuals. When I don’t understand something, I Google too. But I want people to know that they can do this on their own,” she says. “Generally, people have this mentality that they have to join something to make it in a field like this. When I started running, people tried to force me into joining the Ahmedabad Distance Runners group. I want to learn from them but I don’t want to join them. There’s often internal politics within groups, which I don’t like.”
Before I sign off, I flippantly ask her if she is married and I get a very amused, “Single, and happy.” “My parents are very broad-minded. They must be concerned but they have a very simple advice: Tumko jab lagta hai ki tumhe engage hona hai, toh accha hai. But zabardasti karke koi kisiko pareshaan nahi karte. (Get engaged whenever you want to. We don’t want to put pressure),” she says. “In my community, being single is not common at all! Whenever I tell people that I'm 36, their eyes widen. One funny incident took place recently: I was in Nadabet near the Indo-Pak border and I went to a mandir. One villager generally asked me where I've come from, et cetera. He was very shocked when I told him that I'm unmarried. After that, whoever we met, he introduced me as the unmarried one at 36, and not by my name,” she laughs.
If crossing hurdles are her thing, then Lt Purohit is definitely battling more than just the tangible ones.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.