New Delhi: Born without arms, Sheetal Devi would use her feet to climb trees. But little did she know that the childhood habit was acting as the spadework in laying a strong foundation for future success.
The practice of climbing tress in her village in Jammu and Kashmir strengthened her core muscles and helped her in becoming a trailblazing para archer, who recently became the world number one in women’s compound archery open category.
Before getting hooked on to sport, she was dreaming of becoming a teacher. She could not become one, but the 16-year-old is certainly giving life lessons to many.
Sheetal was born without arms because of a condition called Phocomelia. It’s a rare congenital deformity in which the hands or feet are attached close to the trunk with the limbs being underdeveloped or absent.
Her life changed when she went to Bengaluru to get prosthetic arms and met with Preethi Rai, the founder of storytelling start-up, ‘Being You’.
Preethi tried her best to get Sheetal artificial arms but it didn’t work out as her shoulders couldn’t bear the weight of the prosthetics.
But Preethi, who had worked with many para athletes in the past including para shuttler Mansi Joshi, noticed Sheetal’s inner strength and introduced her to former India hockey team physiotherapist Shrikant Iyengar, who took her fitness test.
She came out with flying colours in the test, scoring 8.5 out of 10.
“When we first met in Bengaluru in 2021, Sheetal was keen to have prosthetic hands. After a lot of convincing she decided to take up sports,” Preethi said.
“We reached out to Shrikant Iyengar and he recognised her sublime core strength, which she had developed while regularly climbing tress in her village.” Having given up on her initial dream of becoming a teacher, Sheetal, the world’s first-ever armless female archer to compete internationally, is now determined to win a medal for the country in next year’s Paris Paralympics.
Seating on a chair, Sheetal uses her right leg to raise the bow and aim. She then pulls the string back using her right shoulder and a small instrument held in her mouth, which helps her release the arrow.
“I felt really good that I became world no.1. My sir told me to give my best and I just tried to give my best.
“I will work hard for Paralympics and hope to win a medal for the country. I am confident and fully prepared for Paralympics,” Sheetal said on Friday during the launch of a book cover featuring her.
“I used to think that I can’t do anything in life but everyone supported me and that is the reason I am here today. If I didn’t get that support I guess I wouldn’t have been where I am today.” The Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board Sports Complex in Katra, where she had trained initially, gave her three options — running, swimming and archery — and she chose the last one.
“I always wanted to become a teacher but sports happened by chance and I am not thinking about being a teacher anymore. What I am thinking right now is to win many more medals for the country,” Sheetal told PTI.
In just one and a half year, Sheetal rose to the pinnacle of her sport, winning two gold medals in this year’s Hangzhou Para Asian Games in individual compound and mixed team compound besides claiming silver medal in doubles compound event.
She thanked the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board for playing a big role in her journey.
“Whatever I am today is because of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Sports Complex in Katra and its coaches Abhilasha Chaudhary and Kuldeep Wadhwan,” Sheetal said.
Sheetal said she was also inspired by American para archer Matthew Stutzman, who too was born without arms. He competed at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics and won a silver medal in 2012.
“I met him (Stutzman) and I felt really good after meeting him. He motivated me a lot,” she said.
“When I didn’t start archery Preethi didi had sent me his videos and I got motivated seeing his videos. And when I met him I got to learn more about him.”