Despite hurdles, India’s first woman wind foiler Katya Coelho is all set for Asian Games 2023
Coelho was the first and only Indian sailor to represent India at the Youth Olympics in 2014. In September, she will be representing India for the second time at Asian Games 2023 and at the upcoming world championship, which serves as the qualifying event for Paris Olympics 2024.
The sparkling blue sea stretched out far before 11-year-old Katya Ida Coelho when she decided to windsurf for the first time.
With her heart pounding, a mix of fear and excitement surged through her veins as she stood firmly on the board. Holding the sturdy boom—a pole-like structure—which towered over her, she adjusted her stance.
To battle the winds, she put in more muscle strength and tightened her grip on the boom. She soon found her balance and swayed with the board that bounced off the waves.
On that sunny day in Goa, Coelho discovered her passion for surfing.
“All I can say is that in that moment I felt like I was one with the sea. It was an exhilarating experience that crafted my destiny,” Coelho tells HerStory.
“I have been comfortable with water however I was very nervous when I windsurfed the first time. Initially, when I started surfing, I used to be a little scared to see jellyfish and dolphins so close to me, however now water has become my home,” she says.
Now 23, Coelho is the first and only Indian sailor to represent the country at the Youth Olympics in 2014. She also represented India at the Asian Games in 2018. In 2022, she secured the second position at the International Windsurfing Cup in Thailand in 2022.
Coelho is now all set to represent India again in Asian Games 2023, which will be held in Hangzhou, China from September 23 to October 8.
She will be competing in the wind foiling category, a new windsurfing class that has replaced the 15-year-old RS:X. The new class has been introduced by World Sailing, the governing body for the sport recognised by the International Olympic Committee.
Diving deep into passion
Coelho has been in love with the sea as long as she can remember. She grew up watching her father–Donald Coelho, a three-time national champion, and brother–Dayne Coelho, windsurf. She vividly recalls those days when she regularly attended her father's tournaments and practice sessions.
“The way he effortlessly sailed amidst the crashing waves ignited a spark in me for the sport,” she says.
However, she says that she looked at windsurfing more as a hobby which she enjoyed during her summer holidays. But over time she realised her growing passion for the sport.
“From watching my father surf to finding my own rhythm, I rode the waves of passion, turning a hobby into a profession,” she says.
Windsurfing, an adventure sport, can be challenging.
“The sport is physically demanding as it requires a lot of strength to manage the equipment. Additionally, one needs to have a good understanding of weather and water conditions to be good at it,” she says.
It also requires a good sense of balance as well as the right equipment. “You cannot just win because you are skilled in the sport but you also need an equipment that compliments your skill set,” she says.
Coelho firmly believes that every location has its own unique weather and water conditions and therefore, she emphasises that an athlete must be able to adapt to new environments. To achieve this, she prefers to practice in the destination where the competition will be held, a few days prior to the event. This hands-on approach enables her to optimise her performance and excel in the conditions she might encounter.
“No two days are the same in windsurfing. It is like a new adventure for me every day and I absolutely love this thrill in the sport,” she says.
Coelho has had to deal with several challenges to pursue her passion. During Asian Games 2018, the universal joint (a part of the equipment) broke, which led her to fall off the board. The accident left her with ACL and meniscus tears in both her knees.
While she took a break to recover, the RS:X, a windsurfing class was replaced with IQFoil by World Sailing.
In IQFoil windsurfing, also known as wind foiling and hydro foiling, the traditional daggerboard is replaced with hydrofoils which allow the board to soar above the water, providing speed and agility to the athlete.
As such, Coelho trained for the new category last year. She says that with wind foiling, an athlete needs to put on more muscle weight to maximise the speed in the direction of the wind to go faster. According to her, building muscle weight requires persistent efforts and time.
Additionally, the lack of women's participation has been a challenge. Since there is not enough women participation, she has had to participate in the men’s category many times. However, she believes that her participation in the Asian Games can open doors to other women into the sport.
Sailing her way ahead
As the Asian Games draw closer, Coelho's preparations have intensified.
Each day, she dedicates a minimum of two hours to rigorous exercise, focusing on enhancing her muscle strength. Balancing her time effectively, she also spends at least two hours in her windsurfing practice. She also aims at honing her skill to be able to surf in strong wind conditions, which she says is “not her strongest suit.”
Since monsoon in Goa has begun, Coelho has headed to Italy to continue her practice. She will also be representing India at the upcoming world championship, which serves as the qualifying event for the Paris 2024 Olympics. The championship is scheduled to take place from August 10 to 20 in the Netherlands.
Coelho has bought a new sail and is using the old board which she bought from her prize money. However, she has urged the State Government to help her get equipment, which costs around Rs 10 to 12 lakhs, for the Asian Games.
“I just hope that I am able to make India proud with my performances in the coming competitions and make way for many more women in the sport,” she says.
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti