51st place just fine with Neha Ahuja
SESTRIERE COLLE, Italy – The Olympic experience is something entirely different for Neha Ahuja, slalom racer No. 64.
This girl’s road to the Games took a couple of detours unheard of by most of Wednesday’s
Olympic slalom field.
Ahuja, 24, is the first woman from India to qualify for the Winter Olympics ” an improbable achievement in a country where women aren’t expected to follow athletic pursuits and where skiing is a largely unknown sport.
Ahuja finished 51st Wednesday. But the result is not what she came here for.
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
Fog descended on the stadium and race course as Ahuja wrapped up the event with her trip down the course in Sestriere, Italy. She crossed the finish line and blew a kiss to the camera. She skied out of the gate, slung her skis over her shoulder and walked out of the finish area, her smile leading the way.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for the longest time,” said Ahuja, whose early ski experience included hiking up the Himalayas and then racing down.
“I could barely sleep last night because I was so anxious to get up in the morning and go. I feel on top of the world.”
Ahuja grew up near Kasmir, a small Himalayan resort for which her father, former Indian army Colonel Ahuja, was the winter sports director.
The ski area that Neha, her sister and father frequented was called Gulmarg, and it featured one Poma lift.
“The resort still has one Poma bar that’s 20 to 30 years old,” Ahuja said. “It’s so slow. You can walk faster.”
And walk she did.
“Most races, we had to walk some if not all of the slope,” she said. “We took two runs and were exhausted. Sometimes we didn’t get to inspect the course. I was like, ‘I’m just going.’ I wouldn’t want to inspect the course because I didn’t want to walk up again.”
When Ahuja was 16, she moved to Vail. She took up with Ski Club Vail, and the disparity between her level of skiing and that of the other racers was immediately painfully clear.
“I felt it sometimes, that people thought, ‘OK. She’s from India. She’s not a very good skier.’ But I knew that was the fact,” she said. “It took me a while to realize they were born with skis on their feet.”
Ahuja, with the financial support of Joe Morita of Sony Corporation, went on to study and ski at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and afterward she trained with coaches in Japan and then Austria.
“Even now when I train in Austria, I cry after races, like, ‘Why are these 15-year-old girls beating me by so much time?'” Ahuja said. “My coach was like, ‘Neha, They started racing when they were 5 years old. You started racing when you were 20 years old.’ Later on, when you sit down and think about it, you think, ‘Yeah. That can make a difference.'”
Ahuja’s nationality is both a blessing and a curse. Because ski racing is such a rare activity in India, she is the one woman, the first ever, to qualify for the Olympics in both slalom and giant slalom, joining three of her countrymen who compete in bobsled and cross country.
While Ahuja’s status as a lone ranger has brought her a significant amount of fame in her mother country, financially she doesn’t get the support Indian athletes in more conventional sports do.
“You have to realize that India is not the richest country,” she said. “We don’t get (ski) equipment in India, we have a hard time getting sponsors. I’ve spent 15 years of my life trying to make this my goal and achieve it.”
Coming from a country where women are still subjected to arranged marriages and dowries created another hurdle for Ahuja.
“I have people saying on and off to my parents, ‘How can you let your daughter go?'”, Ahuja said. “For women, it’s the hardest sport because parents are afraid to send their daughters to different countries and different cultures.”
But Ahuja had strong family support.
“I salute my parents for having the courage to let me live alone, outside from under their eyes,” she said. “We have this understanding that this is our goal.”
The understanding appeared to have gone full circle on Wednesday. It was difficult to see Col. Ahuja’s eyes as his smile was so big after his daughter’s first run on the slalom course.
While he swelled with pride after seeing Neha come down the race course, the biggest moment of pride came when his daughter carried the Indian flag around the stadium in front of thousands of spectators at the opening ceremony.
“I was feeling out of this world,” said Col. Ahuja, clearly having difficulty finding words to articulate his emotion. “I was feeling very, very proud.”
Neha said she barely remembers the ceremony because she was in such a state of awe and happiness.
“To carry my national flag was an honor. It was the greatest thing,” she said.
To Ahuja, the Olympic experience isn’t about being racer No. 64, or finisher No. 51.
“I’m so lucky and fortunate to be here, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “There are many athletes from many nationalities who don’t even get to start in the Olympics.”
Ahuja will also compete in Friday’s Olympic giant slalom.