Sports

Struggle And Sacrifice: When Family Support Contributed To Athletes’ Success

These athletes, who faced steep challenges, found the right support system in their families.

Pankaj Shaw has practically been Prithvi's coach throughout his youth.
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In a country like India, fans bury themselves deep into sports, so much so that they usually think past everything except the result. This leads to elation and celebration when the outcome is in their favour or anger and abuse if it's against them. But what about the subjects of their emotions - the players?

The players, be it cricketers, boxers, footballers, everyone goes through hardships at some stage, some more than others. And often, the athlete’s support system - parents, siblings, and coaches – has to be strong and make sacrifices of their own.

One of the most polarising figures of Indian cricket today is the brilliant but controversial Prithvi Shaw. From the time he scored a record 546 in school cricket, he has been watched closely by pundits and fans. But while there is no doubting his talent, Prithvi had a difficult childhood, and this has resulted in some rebellious behaviour on his part in his grown-up years. Prithvi lost his mother when he was four. He had a punishing schedule as a boy, travelling from Virar to different parts of Mumbai for practice and matches. His father Pankaj was rather strict at times while bringing him up, occasionally raising his hand on him. But Pankaj has also been his mentor and practically his coach throughout Prithvi’s youth. He put all his resources into grooming his son, even selling his garment shop at one point. Pankaj would be alongside Shaw at all times, as he would bat in the nets for extended durations tiring out the bowlers. The father-son pair sacrificed numerous holidays trying to turn a boy’s dream into reality. When Prithvi made his Test debut against the West Indies, Pankaj preferred watching the game from home as opposed to visiting the stadium in Rajkot. The fearless, strokeful Prithvi hit 134 off 154 balls in his debut innings.

Indian all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja's parents faced their share of struggles with finances regularly. While his mother, Lataben, was a nurse in a government hospital, his father, Anirudhsinh, always found himself in between jobs, and struggling to meet ends. His mother and sisters encouraged him to play cricket; it was their way of keeping him away from the difficulties in the household. Jadeja was only 17 when he lost his mother. Traumatised by the event, Jadeja even considered quitting the game altogether. After reaching his maiden Test hundred, which came against the West Indies in 2018, he dedicated the milestone to his mother.

In tennis, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, dominated the sport and became multi-millionaires. A lot of credit for that goes to their father, Richard Williams, who overcame obstacles such as racism and poverty to raise his daughters into women that they are today. He spent many hours training them, eventually watching them rise to prominence in the sport. He once spoke about his early struggles, including being abandoned by his father at a tender age. It led to him and his mother, Julia, struggling for basic household necessities. Richard admitted that he despised his father for his actions. "As early as I remember, I hated my name because my father’s love did not come with it. It would always remind me of the man who left me alone," he said in an interview. Richard vowed that he would always be there for his daughters. He saw Venus and Serena win 7 and 23 Grand Slam titles, respectively. Inspired by his life's story, Hollywood made a movie in 2021 titled ‘King Richard’, starring Will Smith, which won the actor an Academy Award.

India's outing at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, was a memorable one. The contingent finished fourth in the medals tally, winning 22 golds. One of the gold medal winners was weightlifter Achinta Sheuli. While reliving his medal victory, Achinta thought about the sacrifices made by his father and brother to make his journey a success. And after he lost his father in 2013, his brother, Aloke, quit weightlifting to focus on Achinta. Aloke would divide time between Achinta and their mother, juggling different roles. Achinta now eyes qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics, of course, with his brother by his side.

Another Indian athlete who faced poverty was the boxing great MC Mary Kom. "I had to help my parents in the fields, take care of my siblings, take care of the house and attend school," the 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist said. She also experienced gender-related challenges, as boxing was seen as a male sport in India. Her father, Tonpa, recalled an incident from Mary's formative years during an interview. "There was one time when I really couldn’t make ends meet and told her, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t support your diet’. She told me, ‘Don’t worry, when others eat meals worth Rs 50, I will eat meals worth Rs 25’. At that point I decided that I have to support her no matter what." With the right backing, Mary went on to become an Indian sports legend. Bollywood made a movie about her life titled 'Mary Kom', starring Priyanka Chopra.

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