As long as I live, I will play and win, says 95-year-old Sprinter Dadi
Age is just a number and Bhagwani Devi’s achievements on the field are a testament to this. Sprinter Dadi, as she is called, bagged three gold medals at the 9th World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships held in Poland recently.
A few days ago, Bhagwani Devi Dagar, a 95-year-old athlete from Delhi, landed on Indian soil with the Indian flag proudly draped around her and three glistening gold medals hanging around her neck—which she had won at the recently concluded 9th World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships held in Torun, Poland.
As she walked out of the Delhi airport, the crowd cheered her, lifted her, showered her with garlands, and overwhelmed her with love. Bhagwani Devi turned to the cameras and gave a victory sign, her wrinkled face gleaming with pride and happiness,
“Mujhe bahut badiya lag raha hai ki mein yeh apne desh k liye kar payi (I am feeling good that I was able to do this for my country),” she told HerStory.
The athlete had bagged gold medals in 60-metres running, shot put, and discus throw in Torun. Last year, at the World Masters Athletics Championships held in Tampere, Finland, Bhagwani Devi won the gold medal in 100-m sprint and bronze medals in shot put and discus throw.
Today Bhagwani Devi is an accomplished athlete, but her rise to success was not a smooth run, as she encountered several challenges all through her life.
The early struggles
Bhagwani Devi was born in Khedka village in Haryana in 1928. As a child, she loved playing kabaddi with the girls of the village. She never received formal education, and, at the tender age of 12, she was married off to Vijay Singh, who lived in Malikpur village, near Delhi.
When she turned 18, she was blessed with a baby boy, but he passed away within a few months. Three years later, she gave birth to a girl.
When she was 30 years of age and was six months pregnant with a boy, another tragedy struck—her husband passed away.
Miseries continued to afflict her, as four years later, her daughter passed away too, leaving her with her son, Hawa Singh Dagar.
Bhagwani Devi showed tremendous strength during these tough times. With the support of her sister, she educated her son.
She worked for long hours in the agricultural fields to ensure she was self-sufficient to fund her son’s education and meet all other needs. Her efforts finally paid off, and her son secured a government job as a clerk at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in the eighties.
Tryst with sports
Bhagwani Devi’s tryst with competitive sport began at the ripe old age of 94. She was introduced to it only last year by her grandson Vikas Dagar—a para-athlete and a Khel Ratna awardee. Bhagwani Devi and her grandson now live in Delhi.
Vikas recalls how his grandmother used to talk about the games she played in her childhood. She could not contain her excitement while discussing the games she played, says Vikas and adds that she used to be mesmerised by the medals he brought back home.
“She used to touch and feel them. I could see in her eyes that she desired to play and win medals,” says Vikas.
He wanted to introduce his grandmother to active sports but was concerned about her age and her heart condition, as she had undergone a bypass surgery in 2007.
However, he decided to take up the challenge and get Bhagwani Devi involved in sports. In January last year, he gave her a shot (the metal ball used in shot put) and asked her to give it a go. However, she refused to do so.
But the next day, she came to Vikas and said, “Vo cheez diyo jo kal de raha tha (Give me the thing you gave me).”
Vikas was delighted and took his grandmother to a nearby ground and asked her to throw the shot. Bhagwani Devi threw it effortlessly across 3.75 m, leaving him awestruck.
“She had done a great job, seeing her age. I just knew it in my heart that she is made to play,” he says.
Since then, there has been no looking back for the grandson-grandmother duo.
Vikas took full responsibility for training Bhagwani Devi so that she could represent India in the international circuit.
Bhagwani Devi is very active for her age. However, the biggest challenge for her has been understanding the basic rules and technicalities of competitions. She overcame this challenge with determination.
“Her discipline, resilience and optimism have been her core strengths,” says Vikas.
The road to success
Training for any sport at the age of 94 is a formidable task, and Bhagwani Devi’s journey to the world championships was no exception.
“At this age, the muscles are weak. Hence, we do not enforce any strict training regime on her,” explains Vikas.
“She walks 3-4 km daily, and I train her with the rules and throwing techniques she needs to use in shot put and discus throw for two or three days a week. She eats home-cooked food but avoids things which have lots of fat as she has had bypass surgery.”
Based on her body strength, Bhagwani Devi started preparing for three categories—100-m sprint, shot put and discus throw.
In just a few months of training, she won medals galore—three golds at the Delhi State Masters Athletics Championship held in April 2022, followed by three more golds at the 42nd National Masters Athletics Championships held between April 26 and May 2 in Chennai last year.
She also qualified for the World Masters Athletics Championships 2022 in Finland in the 90-94 years age category, leaving the whole family happy but equally concerned.
Travelling abroad meant enduring a long flight. Also, a lot more practice had to be put in for the world championships. This was extremely demanding for someone at the age of 94. But Bhagwani Devi seized the opportunity at the drop of a hat.
She told her family, “Mein bahut saal jee li hu, maut se darne ke liye. Agar mujhe kuch bhi ho gaya toh mujhe vapis mere desh le ana, par mujhe vahan jaane do, taki mein khel ke apne desh ke liye kuch jeet pau (I have lived for many years. I do not fear death. If something happens to me, bring me back to my country. But let me go there, so that I can play and win for my country).”
Her undying spirit and exemplary skills helped her win the tournament. And soon people started calling her “Sprinter Dadi”.
However, some people did question her ability to compete at her age. They even questioned the judgement of her coach, Vikas, for encouraging her to participate in sports at such an advanced age.
But Bhagwani Devi never let these opinions dampen her spirit. She ignored people’s rants and instead worked hard to achieve her goal.
The 9th World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships 2023 was held in Torun, Poland between March 25 and 31.
Bhagwani Devi was the lone competitor in W95 plus (Women 95-99) category in all three competitions. She ran the 60-m sprint in 36.59 seconds and produced a throw of 2.93 m in shotput and 4.67 m in discus, bagging three gold medals in the process.
Bhagwani Devi’s achievements are a testament to the belief that age is just a number.
Currently, she is focused on the Asia Masters Athletics Championships to be held in November in the Philippines, after which she will be competing in the World Masters Athletics Championships in Sweden next year.
Bhagwani Devi says she feels stronger than ever.
“Jab tak jeeungi tab tak khelungi aur jeetungi (As long as I live, I will play and win),” she signs off.
Edited by Swetha Kannan