Commentary

The life of an Indian surfer girl

Updated: October 13, 2017, 11:23 AM ET
By Aishwarya Kumar

Courtesy Ben ReedTanvi Jagadish first paddleboarded in Mulki, Karnataka. A round strip of river led to the ocean and people paddled across the river to get to the ocean. She fell in love with the sport when she took her first stroke at age 10.

Tanvi Jagadish pressed her palms together, hoping the pressure would keep her hands from trembling. She needed to calm down. Collect her thoughts and shake this nervous energy. In less than one hour, she would be on the starting line of the 2016 World Standup Paddle and Paddleboard Championship, an 18-kilometer distance race in Fiji. She had never competed outside India -- and she had never raced that kind of distance.

On this late November day in 2016, Jagadish and her male teammate, Sekar Patchai, would be a part of the first Indian team to participate in an international SUP contest. The then 16-year-old, who had won five national championships and was sponsored by Vans, was already the first pro stand-up paddleboarder from her country. She was proud that athletes from other countries used terms like "team" and "delegation" to describe the duo.

This was not just a big moment for Jagadish personally, it was also the beginning of a larger ambition for her -- to change the perception of what women could achieve in India. In the coming months, she would do that by competing in more high-profile events, giving speeches at high schools and as a guest speaker at a Tedx Talk. But first, she had to get through today.

Despite her nerves, Jagadish felt prepared. She had had a large meal -- fruits, vegetables and wheat bread -- and had practiced an hour and a half of yoga. With minutes left before she had to leave for the contest, she fumbled with her phone in her hotel room. She made a long-distance call to her coach, Shamanth Kumar, who stayed behind in India to keep costs down. She needed to hear his voice and ask him what he wanted out of her in this race.

"I have zero expectations for you. Just go out there, do your best and learn from the event," he had said.

She thought about his advice, and breathed in and out deeply. She felt slightly better, slightly more focused. Outside, it was 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). That wasn't too hot for a regular day -- but this was no regular day. She was going to be out in the open ocean paddling for at least two and a half hours. The men's distance race was the day before and three athletes had fainted because of the heat.

This could get tricky.

I am completing the race no matter what, she thought to herself. I'm going to prove to people back in India that women can be professional paddlers.


Courtesy Sean EvansAfter Jagadish's first international race in Fiji, Star Board, a popular paddleboard company, gave her a brand-new board worth more than two lakh rupees ($3,100).

"This is a boy's sport. What are you doing wasting your time in the water?"

Jagadish had heard jeers like that since she started surfing and paddleboarding at 10 years old, and she always responded the same way: "I can do anything a boy can do."

The young Jagadish developed this confidence with the help of an unlikely source.

Living in Mangalore, Jagadish would spend weekends and summers with her grandparents in nearby Mulki, a small village in south India. During a work trip abroad, her late grandfather, Srikar Kunder, had noticed women paddlerboarders in countries like the Maldives and Fiji. He promptly came home and told his granddaughter all about it. He had noticed that the nearby Mantra Surf Club, which he frequented for meditation and yoga classes, offered surfing and paddling lessons. He encouraged her to try it.

He also encouraged her to shut out the naysayers, which he knew she would have to face.

"Listen to your heart," he'd say to her at least twice a day. "If your heart wants it, go for it. Who cares what the people around you think?" The words -- and the sentiment -- stuck. She wrote them down in her diary and still reads it out loud regularly.

Jagadish was immediately drawn to stand-up paddleboarding. To her, there was something calming yet unnerving about the sport. She loved the repetition of the paddling and the challenge of navigating the variation of waves. She knew she wanted to train to be a professional. "It's just the surf bug that gets everyone, and she is just one of the victims," said her coach, Kumar.

But her parents weren't as enthusiastic. They refused to give her permission to pursue a career in paddleboarding or surfing. She could go down to the beach for fun, but her focus should be her education. They also felt protective of her and didn't want her to get hurt. They had heard the same slights as Jagadish. People would say no one would marry their daughter because she spent all of her time at the ocean, and her face was tanned and her hair was disheveled. Others criticized her for wearing shorts and T-shirts: "Why is she disobeying the rules?" they'd ask.

Jagadish would have to wait a while before she could convince them to let her listen to her heart.


Courtesy Ben ReedAs a child, Jagadish had severe bouts of asthma. She had to use nebulizers and antibiotics, but after a few recreational paddling sessions, the symptoms disappeared. Studies have shown that ocean air can increase lung function.

Tanvi Jagadish was out in the South Pacific Ocean for more than three hours. The 18-kilometer race started at Cloudbreak, a beach in Tavarua Island, and snaked through the ocean with markers every five miles, ending at Musket Cove in Mamanuca Island. She raced alongside 19 other women, including world champions Candice Appleby of the U.S. and Olivia Piana of France.

Right before the race, she fussed over several things: If only I had a better board. If only I had more endurance training. If only...

But when the race began, every negative thought faded. Paddle, dig hard, pull the water. This was her mantra. Coach Kumar had narrated it to her every day during their initial training sessions. It was all she thought about during those three hours.

Her hands steadied in her paddles. Her legs found their rhythm on the board. The splashing water calmed her down. She was where she needed to be. The ocean was home. She knew she could do this. She could finish this race.

She counted every five miles when she got to the new marker. Five miles down, 12 to go. Fifteen miles down, three to go. Five-hundred meters to go. She felt slightly dehydrated, but the heat didn't really bother her. She had worried for nothing.

That was when she saw it. The blue finish line.

But that was not all she saw. She saw all the other athletes holding their respective country's flag up high. They were waving at her. She could hear cheering, but she couldn't quite make out the words.

She paddled harder. The cheering got louder.

Courtesy Ben Reed"Fiji is one of the toughest circuits in the world. It is an open ocean distance race, which means [Tanvi] had to deal with currents and it's brutal under the sun, but she managed it like a pro," said Rammohan Paranjape of the Surfing Federation of India.

"Let's go Tanvi, let's go. India! India!"

The words rang against her eardrums. It felt as if somebody injected fresh energy inside her. Paddle harder, she said to herself.

When she was about 300 meters away from the finish line, some paddlers, who had already finished, ran into the water with their boards. They paddled toward Jagadish. As they reached her, without uttering a word, they all turned around -- as if rehearsed -- and started paddling to the finish line with her.

One-hundred meters. Fifty meters. She felt the blue ribbon rub against her skin as she crossed the finish line with a massive forward stroke.

"You did it, Tanvi! Go, India, go!" The cheering continued.

Tears poured down her face. She held her face and wept.

She had finished in last place. There was a part of her that was disappointed -- she didn't want India to ever be in the last place -- but she finished her first international race. Two other competitors did not finish because of the heat.

Her team India manager, Rammohan Paranjape, ran toward her with the Indian flag. She held it and waved it. All the other female athletes waved their flags at her.

In that singular moment, it was not about gender. It was not about nationality. In that moment, the differences fizzled away. They were all in this together.


Courtesy Surfing Federation of IndiaEarlier this year, Jagadish came to the U.S. a month in advance of the Carolina Cup (April 19-23) to train under her mentor April Zilg (right), a pro paddleboarder who's ranked No. 11 in the world.

In 2014, April Zilg -- a pro stand-up paddleboarder from the U.S. -- visited India with her husband and wanted a spot to train. She picked Mulki. A 14-year-old Jagadish sought her out and had numerous conversations with her about stand-up paddleboarding as a profession, races around the world and the ISA, the sport's governing body. She also asked her about women paddlers. She wanted to hear from Zilg, who is ranked No. 11 in the world, that women could succeed as professionals in the sport.

"Of course, women can make a career out of it," Jagadish remembers her saying.

Jagadish's resolve was renewed.

For days on end, she begged her parents. She laid out facts. She gave them names of successful female paddleboarders in the world. She told them her family could trust Mantra Surf Club and her coach. She gave them the list of Indian and international championships in which she could compete. She talked about how her experience would open doors for Indian women wanting to pursue unique dreams. She relayed her grandfather's famous message about listening to one's heart.

Her parents were reluctant. They didn't want people to talk about their daughter, but at the same time, she was older now. They took her ambitions more seriously. They could also see the fire in her eyes.

"We were worried that she was choosing a complicated sport, and that she'd be spending a lot of time by herself in the ocean," her father, Jagadish Sunder, said. "But she has a way of conveying her passion -- you can't really say no to her if she wants something really bad."

After four years of standing by their initial decision, they said yes.


When Jagadish returned home from Fiji, the same people who had questioned her choices, praised her for her resilience and strength in the ocean. Their skepticism turned into pride when she represented India on an international stage. Her community in Mangalore stepped up and presented her with a flower garland, gave her fruits and money. They said, "Women power -- she represented India and finished the race." She even gave a speech in front of her high school -- "Life of an Indian Surfer Girl," she called it. Classmates told her she was an inspiration.

Her nontraditional career choice and her outspoken personality also drew the attention of Tedx Talk organizers. The now 17-year-old will appear on the program on Oct. 16. She was in disbelief at first. She said to herself, Influential personalities like actor Shah Rukh Khan and entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani have taken the same stage, and now my name is going to be on that list?

Tedx Talk is just one opportunity that has opened up for Jagadish since her international debut in Fiji. She competed in the 2017 Carolina Cup in the U.S. - where she placed third in the seven-mile race in her age category -- landed a clothing sponsorship with Red Bull and raced in the World Championship in Denmark in September (she didn't make the final). She also took home the 2017 ISA Scholarship Award of $20,000 and won the 2017 Grom of the Year for her contributions to expanding stand-up paddling in India.

"I don't want her story to be, 'A female stand-up paddler from ...' I want her story to be, 'She is the best stand-up paddler, and she is from India.' That would be the perfect way to take her story forward," Paranjape said.

Perhaps her greatest accomplishment yet is mentoring young girls in stand-up paddling and surfing. She trains with them in Mulki. "I want to take a team of women to the world championships in the future," she said.

Women can want anything and go get it. There is nothing stopping us, she keeps saying to herself.

"I want to become the water woman of India," she said.

Aishwarya Kumar

ESPN.com

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