Diagnosed with cancer at 9, Shivani Charak is now India’s top woman sport climber

After a win at the Asian Championships, 18-year-old cancer survivor Shivani Charak is on a high and is hoping to win many more laurels for India in sport climbing.
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From being diagnosed with cancer at the age of nine to taking up a sport where your entire strength is placed on your bare hands, especially fingertips, to scale a vertical wall, Shivani Charak’s is the story of grit, determination, and the will to succeed.

The 18-year-old from Jammu is ranked India’s top woman sport climber and is on her way to clearing more obstacles to reach the pinnacle. She is hopeful of getting a berth in the Tokyo Olympics where the sport will be showcased for the first time.

Literally on a high, Shivani won a junior bronze at the Asian Youth Championships in Bengaluru at the end of last year, and is excited about winning her first international medal on home ground. In 2019, she also participated in the IFSC ACC Asian Championships 2019 in Indonesia, an experience that paved the way for her home win.

Trial by fire

Born and raised in Jammu, Shivani has two brothers and a sister. She took up taekwondo in school but did not get serious about it. In 2009, when Shivani was nine, tragedy struck.

“I remember it was a New Year day and also my cousin’s birthday. Everyone was celebrating but I was doubled over with pain radiating from my stomach. My sister saw me crying and told my parents about it. They took me to the doctor, and my father forced the doctor to take an ultrasound. I was later taken to Chandigarh where ovarian cancer was confirmed and I started treatment immediately,” she recalls.

It was a trying time for the family, which had to travel regularly between Jammu and Chandigarh for Shivani’s chemotherapy.

“If I cried in front of my parents, they would also cry. So, I always tried to stay strong. I was surrounded by very small children who were sick and my only wish to God was that they too get well. I went through all the effects – the hairfall etc. It was a really trying time,” she adds.

In 2012, Shivani was declared cancer-free and started attending school regularly.

At the age of 14, she expressed an interest to take up sport climbing just like her sister. It’s an extreme sport that relies on permanent anchors fixed to the rock for protection, in which a rope that is attached to the climber is clipped into the anchors to arrest a fall. She started climbing the four-metre wall at her school.

She was initially dissuaded because of her poor health but her father told her she could take up the sport if her doctor gave the go-ahead.

It was not easy as she was still weak. She persuaded her twin brothers to help her and within a year, she found herself settling into the sport as if it she had been doing it for years.

Determination pulls her through

Slowly but steadily, Shivani began winning many local competitions. In 2015, she won the gold at the Nationals and in 2016, participated in the World Cup. She also trains with the Army; the sessions, she adds, motivate her to perform her best.

While sport climbing may be physically strenuous, on ground, the challenges were different. There were not enough facilities in Jammu for Shivani to train in, except one climbing wall.

“There was just one training camp for the Asian Championships, and that happens only once a year. We are left to train on our own. That’s why my training sessions with the Army bolstered my spirit to a large degree,” she says.

A typical day in Shivani’s life includes climbing, pull-ups, and gym sessions. She is hopeful of getting an Olympic berth, but this dream is one rife with many complexities. There is no word yet on the trials and she is hopeful of having an outside chance. Her big goal is also the 2022 Asian Games.

Shivani is now part of Welspun’s Super Sportswomen Programme that has been supporting her financially.

“I have been able to participate in competitions and get more exposure to the sport, meet other players, and learn more about my strength and weaknesses because of their support,” she says.

Her enthusiasm and never-say-die spirit will see her through. After all, she has many more mountains to climb on the way to the top.

(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)


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