Meet 19-year-old Naina Adhikari who is making a splash on the Indian kayaking scene

Naina was 13 when she took up kayaking, and since then has participated in every festival and competition in the country. She even takes part in canoe slalom, the Olympic event.

25th Mar 2020
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Naina Adhikari was 13 and enjoying her winter vacations when her uncle Eddy took her to Rishikesh, the hub of white water kayaking in India. Bhupendra Singh Adhikari aka Eddy is a legend in the kayaking circle in India and got his young niece interested in the sport. 


Incidentally, Naina was hydrophobic and didn’t like the sport in the beginning. However, being in the river pushed her out of her comfort zone and slowly, she fell in love with the water. 


At 19, Naina is one of India’s most renowned white-water kayakers having represented the country in multiple competitions including the Ganga Kayak Festival, in which she won the overall female championship in 2019. 


Naina Adhikari

Naina Adhikari in her natural element.

Starting young 

A regular at kayaking festivals and competitions in India, Naina was only 14 when she took part in her first event. She was the youngest Indian kayaker in the Ganga Kayak Festival in 2014, an annual event that sees kayakers from all over the world. 


After finishing high school, Naina took a gap year and travelled across the country to hone her kayaking skills. Kayaking is not a well-known sport in India, and at most it is seen as just an adventure sport that tourists take part in. It is also an extreme sport that comes with many perils, of which drowning is most common. 


Though skilled and courageous, Naina faced opposition from her mother when she began taking the sport seriously. Her mother was worried about her missing school as she travelled to Rishikesh frequently from her hometown Nainital to practise kayaking. Her mother still panics every time Naina goes underwater. However, she has won over her mother with several accolades in the white rapids. 


Her father has always supported her because he realised that Naina was learning lessons, far beyond the classrooms, in the lap of nature. 



Nothing can stop her

Naina is pursuing an English Honours degree at DIT University, Dehradun. She chose Dehradun so that she could make it to Rishikesh easily, where she trains on the weekends. Though juggling academics and training and education is extremely trying, she is at peace when she is in the midst of the river and the mountains. She also trains in Shivanandi - a pilgrim for kayakers in India. 


In the middle of the rapids and the waves, when every move and timing is important, Naina says,

“It's all about timing. You miss one stroke, you can end up swimming, or having a bad carnage. It’s also all about your stroke. You let the water do what it does and try not to be above nature.”


Though she loves the adrenaline and the thrill of being in the gushing waters, there have been times when she wanted to give up on the sport.  Like the time in July 2019, she was in Kerala practising for a competition with a bunch of other kayakers. She was following the team leader but missed her line when her kayak hit a hole and she went underwater. The waves were rapid and pulled her down into the hole; she was suffocating and thought death was near. Unable to push herself out of the water, she thought of giving up kayaking if she came out of the water. 


Fortunately, the waves eased, and she was able to come out of the hole. Her team members were all teary-eyed as they thought she would never come out. 


After this near-death experience, Naina knew she had to overcome her fear. She was not ready to give up yet. A couple of days later, when the tide was low, she went back into the river. She went through the same section of the river and made it without falling off her kayak. 


She explains that in the river, the competition is not with the others but oneself. Even when competing against international kayakers, her focus is always bettering her previous performances. 

Lack of support

Naina Adhikari

Naina Adhikari during one of the competitions.

Naina participates in two formats - the extreme, white water kayaking and the Olympic event, canoe slalom. 


In canoe slalom, she takes part in the nationals that allows her to represent the country in world cups and championships internationally. However, she has missed out on two such opportunities because the government has not been able to send the kayakers to international competitions stating financial constraints. 


“This is why I prefer doing white water kayaking because there are no regrets. I can represent my country without going through all these government procedures,” she says. 


She also sheds light on the poor facilities available for canoe slalom. The competition has to take place in artificial white-water courses and India doesn’t have even one such facility. Which means that Indian canoe slalom athletes train in rivers limiting their chances of achieving Olympic standards. 



What needs to change

The sport is very expensive with a kayak costing nearly one lakh rupees as they are manufactured in other countries. Currently, she has an American company NRS that supports her with equipment. 


However, she believes that a change in perspective about the sport can do wonders.


White water kayaking is essentially seen as a business or commercial activity of the tourism industry.  It needs to be seen as a sport. People need to understand the physical prowess and the courage that athletes take. A change in perspective can make other things fall into place,” she adds.


Apart from the paucity of sponsors, she believes the government needs to start supporting the athletes and help them with facilities and international competitions. 


She narrates how a French coach was in awe of the rivers in Uttarakhand, calling them the ‘best setting for kayaking’ in the world. India has huge potential as natural resources are available, but the efforts to popularise the sport need to increase. 


However, she cautions that these water resources are also in danger because of human activities like construction of dams. 


In order to protect these resources and popularise the sport, Naina has turned to an evangelistic resource - social media. Using GoPro cameras mounted on her kayak, paddle or helmet, she posts videos on her Instagram and Facebook pages to let people virtually experience the thrill of kayaking. 


In a country of more than a billion people, there are only two or three girl kayakers. Naina is on a mission to inspire more girls to take up kayaking as it teaches them life lessons. 


“This is something, which makes me come out of my comfort zone, boosts my self-esteem and self-confidence and when I'm out there in the river, the only girl with so many male kayakers, the feeling is on a different level altogether,” she says.


(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)


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