Aditi Kakkar was three when she first started learning karate and swimming adjacently. At 12, her participation in ‘Khelo India’ for kids at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi initiated her professional journey in athletics. Kakkar, who holds an international medal in Karate, decided to shift focus to another sport as Karate wasn’t recognised as an Olympic sport back then.
Growing up, she would swim by the coast of Pondicherry and this, in turn, enhanced her swimming style leading her to represent Delhi in freestyle events, relays and water polo. Her first exposure to weightlifting in 2017 gave a different direction to her sporting journey. While she excelled at different competitive sports over the years, she decided she didn’t want to be the jack of all trades anymore and, instead, leave her mark by accomplishing one sport exceptionally well.
Kakkar is currently training as a weightlifter at the Sports Authority of India facility in Pondicherry. As someone who always found solutions to problems, Kakkar also ventured into entrepreneurship drawing from her sporting experience. She co-founded Ochre, an activewear brand for women in 2021 with the purpose to offer quality and comfort. She says the biggest factor that has impacted her growth as an athlete is passion.
In an interview with SheThePeople, Aditi Kakkar discusses her entry into sports, her journey as a weightlifter, the challenges of being a female athlete, her entrepreneurial stint, and what gets her going in the face of adversity.
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Aditi Kakkar Interview
Please share your history as an athlete.
I’ve had my share of experience in most sports since childhood. Apart from learning Karate, swimming and participating in gymnastics, I also pushed myself in race track events. I was a part of the Delhi Development Authority team of Delhi (DDA) under Mr Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, a former Asian games gold medalist.
When my college required athletes to participate in inter-college weightlifting, I had my first exposure to the sport. They noticed I had talent and helped me practice only for as little as a week, and I ended up winning a gold medal. I snatched 42kgs and clean and jerked 52kgs with terrible form. In 2018, decided to pursue my education in Australia instead.
In Australia, I struggled to find Karate training, which was my main sport at the time. Somehow, I landed up at a Crossfit gym, where the American sport of fitness is practised. It combines movements from weightlifting, gymnastics, athletics and more sports. I was naturally good at it because of my vast sporting history. I ranked 2nd in India in the first year of competing. When I moved back to Delhi during the pandemic in 2020, I again struggled to find competitive Crossfit training in India.
I had nowhere to train owing to the lockdown and borrowed old equipment from friends to stay active. This is when I was only doing barbell-related movements. In August 2021, it was when a coach approached me and told me to try out weightlifting because he saw potential in me that I formally started training in weightlifting and it turned out to be an absolute game changer.
Within a few months, I was doing numbers close to those which other girls were doing. I am currently snatching 75kgs and cleaning and jerking 90kgs. Although I have a long way to go, I’m so proud of my journey. I always had a passion for sports and, while at one point I thought this was not the path god made for me, I know now this is what I was meant to pursue.
What were the initial challenges in professional weightlifting?
I started analysing international athletes and trained solo on my terrace. I decided I wanted to compete. Truth be told, it was always a dream to wear the Indian flag one day. I would get goosebumps hearing the national anthem as a kid. My parents also wanted that for me. When I stumbled upon weightlifting, I just knew it was right.
When I borrowed equipment, I had only one very poor quality barbell with almost no spin and broken 10kg plates. I would train myself on the terrace on winter nights. My coach and I didn’t lose hope though. I started looking for different facilities to train at. I went to a college near my place, but since I was not a part of that college, I couldn’t consistently train there. I went to JLN stadium in Delhi, but the training timings were odd and it was overcrowded. I tried a local gym where I couldn’t drop the weight and didn’t have training partners. I even trained in a park. Initially, nobody noticed me and they didn’t allow me space to train. Slowly, when I started posting more on social media, started lifting heavier weights and winning competitions is when people noticed me. I joined Pondicherry University to compete in the All India Inter University Nationals. Currently, I am training at the Sports Authority of India facility in Pondicherry.
“I had to persevere and create space for myself in this sport. People thought I wouldn’t stick around for long, but here I am.”
What are the challenges you face when it comes to gender bias in sports?
Gender inequality is very much prevalent in sports. Men’s sports like cricket and hockey are very popular but people hardly know that the Indian women’s hockey team won a bronze in the 2022 Asia Cup. In sports like mine, I have not seen many females participating in weightlifting because of the stereotype that it is a man’s sport. It is still surprising to notice that Indian female weightlifters are doing so well that the only two Indian medalists in the Olympics in weightlifting are both female, Mirabai Chanu and Karnam Malleswari. I have found that in most of these rudimentary sports, men try to protect females a lot. They still want to have control over the training timings, what we wear during training, and how we travel to training.
Most women would be shy and try to hide amongst a crowd and expect me to do the same. I am not generally someone who follows the crowd. I also find men trying to educate me regarding training and general fitness without acknowledging my experience. Female bodies are not the same as male bodies, we require different nutrition and training modulations. The misconception that females would follow those same patterns males have been following for ages without questioning is a huge challenge.
What kinds of changes would you like to see when it comes to weightlifting in India, especially for women?
First, I want people to know what the sport is. The general belief is that it is going to the gym and lifting dumbbells. I feel Mirabai Chanu’s silver medal in the Olympics did popularise the sport but it is still not enough. Companies like Vogue are doing their bit by featuring athletes on their covers. They’re trying to change the stereotype that ‘muscles are manly.’ Secondly, I want the infrastructure for sports to improve. We need to have more facilities and more awareness about training. I feel kids should participate in sports from a young age which is very much neglected in India. Second, I think there should be more accessibility to funding and sponsorships for athletes. This is a major obstacle for all athletes, including myself. How do we make a living out of this?
“Lastly, I feel we need more women coaches who can guide female athletes particularly because training methodologies are evolving and traditionally women never were the subject of research matter in sports. All our sports knowledge is based on the male body. We need to change this, especially in India.”
You were the second fittest Woman Athlete in India in 2019 and the third fittest in India in 2020. What, in your opinion, are the biggest misconceptions concerning strength training today?
The biggest misconception with strength training is that if I lift weights, I will get big manly muscles. This is untrue. Muscles do not define masculinity in any way. This entirely depends on your genes, handwork, nutrition and consistency. You can be strong and still be lean. Women especially feel they will become manly if they lift weights. If they lifted weights they would be improving their quality of life. Increasing bone density, better muscle quality, and improved mindset are only a few of the benefits of this.
“Strength training reduces fear and instils a sense of courage. I don’t feel like I need to rely on anybody to get things done.”
What does strength mean to you?
Strength is courage. Strength gives me the power to face all my battles. I fall, I stand, I fall, I stand again but never quit. I fight. Strength for me is perseverance.
“Strength is owning up to myself and truly reflecting on who I am.”
Your association with CrossFit has been exemplary. How are you bringing about awareness around the regime in India?
I had no clue what CrossFit was until I moved to Sydney. I loved the thrill of learning something new and being a part of a lovely community. When I became the 2nd fittest women athlete in India in 2019, many women started looking me up on social media. I received many messages about how they also wanted to participate next year or just wanted to be strong. I think something as simple as my posting about it on social media allowed me to do my bit for the CrossFit community in India. I highly recommend the regime to anybody looking to enjoy working out and being fit.
Being an athlete can be mentally taxing. How do you deal with the mental health impact that the journey can bring?
Being an athlete is very overwhelming. Everything needs to be dialled in to ensure peak performance. Physical training is a very small part. How many hours I put into my training strongly depends on external variables like nutrition and mental well-being. If even one element falls short, everything suffers. For a long time, I did neglect this part of myself and relied on my training to make me feel emotionally stable. It was my safe space where I could be cut off from the world. Recently, I started working with a therapist where we work on my mental health. A close friend of mine, who is a sports psychologist, also provides me with amazing techniques which help me cope with the stress and anxiety of being an athlete.
“I would argue that sports have made me mentally strong but, of course, that is not enough. I am still human and life happens to me just as much as it does to anybody else. Therefore, prioritising mental health is crucial.”
You’re a co-founder of Ochre. What made you venture into entrepreneurship?
I belong to a business family. I studied industrial design as my bachelor’s degree. I was always passionate about design and business and wanted to do something in the fitness industry which could help me sustain my sport. What better than providing Indian women with quality activewear that made them feel strong? I launched Ochre in partnership with Radhika Shanker in November of 2021. Although it’s still a work in progress and has a long way to go, it is our baby that we wish to see it grow. As women in fitness, we knew what could be improved with activewear because we struggled with it too. We worked intensively on the fabric quality and the fitting to make sure we valued what we made and would swear by it.
How do you combat entrepreneurial challenges in the Indian market?
The Indian market is a very price-sensitive market, especially the clothing industry. People are not aware of the ugly side of the fashion industry. It is unsustainable and exploitative. Big companies can make products at a low cost because of high quantities and low wages. The industry doesn’t value the environment or the tailors either. The finished product ends up being low in quality and the bin after a few months. We are trying to change this but, in India, we always look at the price first. I’ve been wearing the same Ochre tights for almost two years now and they are as good as new. It is an investment and if we could try to see the quality of the products we buy, the world would be a more sustainable place.
What advice would you give to aspiring women weightlifters?
It’s never too late to start as long as you have the desire and fight. Women are capable of so much, only if we try. If we never try, we will never know. Be inquisitive about your body and learn as much as possible about your sport. The weight on the bar is not to be feared. Be a go-getter, what is the worst that can happen?
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