How Kayaker Naina Adhikari is Breaking Gender Stereotypes With Unconventional Choices

Naina Adhikari
When she first paddled a kayak during her winter break in Rishikesh at the age of 13, Naina Adhikari mustn’t have realised that this sport was going to be a huge part of her life. At 22, she is now one of the country’s most accomplished white-water kayakers, having represented India at various tournaments. She is currently competing in the 2022 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in Germany, reintroducing India to international waterways. This journey, however, was full of challenges for the young kayaker.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Adhikari talks about kayaking, its hurdles, gender dynamics in the sport, her Olympic dream and why sports and athletes in India need to be taken more seriously.

Entering the kayaking scene 

Naina’s uncle Eddy, a pioneer in kayaking on the home front, introduced her to the sport, not intending to enroll her, but rather to allow her to learn more naturally via experience.

She reflects that it was neither a single event nor an impulsive decision that inspired her to pursue the sport as a professional, but one that had been carefully considered over time. “Every time I was in the river, the exhilarating feeling gave me a boost. But what eventually convinced me was the realisation that while things will get rough and there will be taboos, injuries, and self-doubt, at the end of the day I will feel liberated, confident, fearless, and in sync. I knew I had to tap into that,” she shares. And so, after graduating from high school, Adhikari took a gap year and travelled across the country to hone her kayaking skills.

Overcoming social stigma around pursuing an unconventional sport

Kayaking is a relatively lesser-known sport in India, and it is generally seen as a tourist attraction. It is also a demanding sport with various risks, thus sticking to her commitment to continuing with Kayaking was not easy for Adhikari. She also had to deal with resistance owing to society’s failure to make sense of how a small-town girl could participate in a sport that is neither well-known nor considered safe. Her family and well-wishers have witnessed her development as an individual and a team player, and while they received criticism from the naysayers for allowing her to foray into kayaking, they didn’t let it stop her.

“I feel that classroom education is critical. However, it is not the sole consideration. There are important life lessons we acquire outside of the classroom and, in my case, in the lap of nature. We just need to strike the appropriate balance. People should be allowed to do what works for them, not what the old rulebook usually dictates.

Being her own competitor

The national medalist competes in two formats: extreme white water kayaking and Olympic canoe slalom. She ranked first overall at the 2019 Ganga Kayak Festival and finished second in 2020, competing against a big group of international opponents. She chose to pursue her undergraduate studies in Dehradun so that she could travel to Rishikesh, where she trained on weekends. Although juggling academics, training and adverse weather are challenging for her, she finds balance with sheer grit even if the process is far from simple.

“What influences my performance is how I discipline myself and hone my skills in training. While I make every attempt to compete and win, my major goal lies in improving my previous records.”

The gender dynamics and importance of female mentors

When she began kayaking at 13, Adhikari practised as a lone girl among male kayakers. Finding herself practising a sport where there is a dearth of women participants and mentors, she started questioning the gender gap in kayaking and sports in general.

“In a country with over a billion people, there are only a handful of female kayakers. I’m on a quest to get more women to try kayaking. We can’t simply sit and talk about the gender gap; we must also support female athletes and follow their sport to give them their due.”

Naina Adhikari shares an interesting story that shows what happens when women support other women. Her journey to become the first Indian female kayaker to paddle solo and lead Puente’s rapids in Chile, South America, was inspired by US national Brooke Hess, with whom she connected on Instagram two years ago. After an international forum covered her story and kayak session, Brooke informed her how she is travelling to Chile and would love to have her on board. Adhikari knew she couldn’t afford the trip, so Brooke proposed the idea of writing to a company that manufactures Kayaking gear to help gain sponsorship. It all fell in place and she landed in Chile, paddling with female kayakers from different cultures and experiences.

“I’d never been mentored by female kayakers before, and the Chile experience taught me why it’s so crucial to have female mentors in sports. Not disregarding the fact that I had a terrific male mentor in my uncle. However, in a country like India, having women in prominent positions in sports can be empowering for young girls like myself and those to come.”

Lack of facilities and need for essential support from sports authorities 

Adhikari has previously made it to the Indian National Team twice for canoe slalom, qualifying for both the Oceania Championships and the World Championships. Unfortunately, the government declined to send the squad owing to financial constraints, leaving the athletes with the entire financial burden on their shoulders. Due to a lack of infrastructure, our Indian canoe slalom athletes train in rivers. Given that it is an Olympic sport, this is both restrictive and disappointing.

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Kayaks are also quite expensive because they have to be imported to India. Adhikari is presently backed by a US-based manufacturer of kayaking essentials which provides her with equipment. However, she believes that a change in perspective on the sport might be revolutionary. “White water kayaking is mostly recognised as a commercial activity in the tourist industry. About time it’s considered a sport,” she suggests.

She recalls how once a French national instructor was taken aback by the rivers of Uttarakhand, calling them the best kayaking spot in the world. India has immense potential because of its vast natural resources. “If we participate more, our prospects at the national level will rise, and athletes will have a tremendous opportunity. Athletes can concentrate better if they have proper training facilities, equipment and access to necessities, and are not always concerned about expenditures,” she observes.

Naina Adhikari

Naina Adhikari | Photo Credit: Bhuwan Adhikari

Make athletes feel seen and heard through social media

When she first began using social media for kayaking, she did so only for the sake of her sponsors. She quickly realised that if she doesn’t talk about it, no one else will. She wants a bigger Indian audience to become acquainted with kayaking. To help popularise the sport, Naina uploads videos of her kayak sessions to her social media pages allowing viewers to virtually experience the thrill of kayaking. “As one of just a few female athletes in the sport, I feel a great deal of responsibility to encourage more young female athletes. I want to work at the grassroots level, and for that, I need to better myself at what I do,” she adds.

2022 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships Germany

Naina is currently participating in the World Championship in Augsburg, Germany, and is representing India proudly on international waters. The Championship, which commenced on July 26th will come to its conclusion on July, 31st.

“I’m grateful that I’ve had some breakthroughs, but I believe my defining moment is yet to come. That will happen when I can represent my country globally at World Championships and Olympic level.”

Naina Adhikari in Germany for the 2022 ICF World Championships.

Naina Adhikari in Germany for the 2022 ICF World Championships.

Quest for Olympics and future goals 

Kayaking has multiple formats in the Olympics, and starting with the next Olympics in Paris in 2024, Extreme Canoe Slalom will be included, which is important for Adhikari because it’s the sport she practises in India. “Paris 2024 can be huge for us. I’m going to entirely dedicate myself to training hard, competing in championships, and qualifying.”

Featured image photo credit: Ganga Kayak Festival, Anuj Kumar


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