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Deborah seemed destined for unremarkable existence in the far reaches of Car Nicobar, till the tsunami happened and she ended up finding her calling in cycling. This is her story.
On the face of it Deborah is like any other teenager - bubbly and reserved at the same time - but seat her on a bicycle and there is an instant transformation. Out comes the fierce determination to beat all odds with no fear of the unknown.
The 18-year-old from Car Nicobar has overcome tremendous adversities in her short life to usher India's finest medal haul at the recent Junior Asian Cycling Championships with one silver and two bronze in the track races. What is more amazing is that this is her first international tournament, which came immediately after her first ever National camp in New Delhi.
Cycling was far from her mind nine years ago when a devastating tsunami hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2004. "My mother was in the church praying while I was at home with my father, brother and sister when there was the earthquake followed by the tsunami. We didn't really understand what was going on at that time. As everyone was running into the forest, we did the same. For the next five days we stayed inside the jungle, sometimes clinging on to trees before the rescue team arrived, " Deborah says, recalling the toughest time in her life.
There is a hint of a grin on her face as she narrates the incident, which probably shows that life post that tsunami has taught her to take things in her stride. She counts it as a blessing. "I wasn't always into cycling. I took part in a lot of athletics, especially long jump events, in school as well as the national level. Cycling happened accidently. I took part in a cycle event in Andaman and went on to win a medal. The coaches at the Andaman SAI centre were so impressed by my performance that they convinced me to stick to the sport and train there, " Deborah, the eldest of three siblings, says.
Her father has a modest job in the Indian Air Force and is based out of Car Nicobar Air Base. As Deborah moved to Andaman, she hardly got to spend time with her family. "It is not easy commuting between Andaman and Car Nicobar. I spend most of my time in the Andaman SAI Centre and go home only for two weeks during the Christmas holidays, " she says.
She hit the limelight after clinching her first track gold in the Amritsar nationals in January this year. Last year, she won a gold medal at the junior national cycling championships before managing a silver medal in the senior category later.
"Initially it was tough to spend time away from the family. I didn't have friends and communicating with them was also a problem. I used to feel very homesick but since last year some girls from Andaman have come up the ranks and I don't feel so lonely, " Deborah, who won medals in the junior Sprint and Team Sprint and Keirin events, says.
After training in Delhi from August last year, Deborah has earned a well deserved break. "I'll be going back home to see my family. They are really excited about my performance in these championship, " she says.
Even her seniors are in awe of her determination. "She has more endurance and stamina than the senior boys of the team. In the national camp, Deborah climbed the ropes thrice while the other riders, including boys struggled after climbing even once, " her teammate and fellow silver medallist T Manorama Devi says.
In fact, Deborah wasn't done after her splendid showing in the track events. "I wanted to compete in the Road Races as well but the coaches felt that it would put too much strain on my body. I wanted to try what it felt like, " Deborah says with a big smile on her face.
Ask her about her cycling heroes and Deborah is lost for words. "I think it helped that I had not heard about any of the top cyclists in this tournament. I went into the Championships with a clear head and wasn't in awe of anyone. I wasn't scared at any point, just excited, " she says.
The Cycling Federation of India (CFI) has now been forced to sit up and take note of the juniors' performance and is now keen to develop it keeping in mind the 2016 Rio Olympics. "We have proposed that some of the juniors, including Deborah, should be sent to the UCI Academy in Switzerland for training. It costs about 4, 000 Swiss Francs a month and we have sent a letter to the sports ministry and SAI in this regard. Their phenomenal showing in this Championship should convince the authorities to help us out, " reveals a CFI official.
In fact, CFI secretary general Onkar Singh believes Deborah has the potential to be the face of Indian cycling in the near future. "If she is provided the right opportunities to prosper, Deborah can potentially achieve what Saina Nehwal has done for Indian badminton, " Onkar says.
The main sponsor of the Asian Cycling Championships - Hero - came up to Deborah and offered to give her the bike of her choice. "The sponsors asked me which bike I liked best. They have promised to build me one according to the specifications of my choice, " she says with a hint of excitement in her voice.
India's former foreign coach Graham Seers of Australia is happy to see the progress of the juniors since the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. "The fighting between two bodies claiming to be the official cycling federation didn't help India's chances. The Asian Championships here have proven that Indian juniors have the natural talent to succeed. All they need is for the federation to back them.
"Before the CWG, there was hardly any national competition for the cyclists. In fact, I had to organise competitions at the national camps to keep them on their toes. Malaysia currently has six to seven different national cycling events apart from international tournaments. Deborah looks to be on the right path for the Olympics but she needs the right guidance from here on, " Seers, who is now Malaysia's national cycling coach, says.
So far, the exuberance of youth has carried Deborah from faraway Andamans to New Delhi. How much further she can go will be determined by how her talent is polished.
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