Mumbai: Yuvavanti Negi has very few fond memories from her impoverished childhood in Koshla village near Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Sliding down snow on a makeshift sled to ring in Christmas or New Year cheer is certainly not one of them. But this festive winter was different.
The 21-year-old travelled to Nagano in Japan with the junior team for the Asian Championships, where she finished fourth in the B category at the Olympic slope on Sunday. At the end of a mere three days of training time, Yuva was the best finisher in the team. India is in the process of building its gen next of sliders to follow the veteran Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan.
Yuva’s success is particularly heartwarming because of the tragic backstory that preceded it. She shudders remembering one winter 13 years ago, when her occasionally violent father went missing from their small hillside hut in a village close to Vashisht — the same one to which Keshavan belongs — leaving behind his wife, the 7-year-old Yuva, and her two younger siblings.
“She remembers the turmoil of her childhood, when her father, who suffered from mental instability and depression, would get aggressive, and had even got violent once,” says Murlidhar Negi, a former international skier and Yuva’s distant uncle, who took over the responsibility of the family after the father’s disappearance.
“He had tried to kill himself and the family, and just before he left, he burned down their house. I told Yuva that she needed to leave those memories behind and do something with her life,” Murlidhar says.
Having attended one of the road camps in 2008 conducted by Keshavan, where kids pushed down wheeled sleds on winding mountain roads near Manali, Yuva was picked in the junior team, mainly because of her athleticism and the intense drive to do well in the sport.
“I had never heard of the sport, let alone understand it,” she said before leaving for Japan where in the B category, she took off from the Juniors starting point (a notch lower than the Seniors) on the slope. “But once on the sled, I felt free, and I knew I could do this well.”
Her parents had been landless farmers, and Yuva was expected to follow other girls from the village and get married early. Her younger sister was married off two years ago, and that was the plan for her as well — until her father left.
“I remember how my father looked only vaguely, because we were so scared of him as kids. When I started school, my mother told me, what’s the point of marrying someone and living in fear like her? I might as well study, make a life and get out of the misery myself,” she says.
Her mother, who is illiterate, and who struggled to bring up three children, has never seen Yuva on a sled, but is supportive of whatever she wants to do, prodded on by Murlidhar.
“Yuva was brought up by her uncle, and she won in her category when we first picked continued…