New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words of appreciation for 16-year-old J&K archer Sheetal Devi will echo for years to come,
Hailing from Loidhar village in Kishtwar, Sheetal is the first female archer without arms to compete internationally. This week, she won two medals at the Asian Para Games in Hangzhou.
“It is a Glorious Gold for our Para Archery Mixed Team. Congrats to Sheetal Devi and Rakesh Kumar for their extraordinary performance. This glory is a testament to their precision, dedication, and exceptional skills,” PM Modi wrote on X.
Sheetal has a unique knack for holding and balancing the 27.5-kilogram bow with her right leg. She pulls the string back using a manual releaser attached to her right shoulder, and uses a device called the trigger, held in her mouth, to direct the arrow at a target 50 meters away. All the while, she holds herself upright on the seat with her left leg.
Born with Phocomelia, a rare congenital disorder that causes under-developed limbs, she could not even lift the bow properly. “But, after practicing for a couple of months, it became easier,” Sheetal told a national newspaper.
“My parents always had faith in me. My friends in the village also supported me. The only thing I didn’t like was the look on people’s faces when they realized that I didn’t have arms. These medals prove that I am special. These medals are not just mine, but of the whole country,” she said.
At Hangzhou, Sheetal won a women’s team silver while pairing up with Sarita, and a mixed team gold with Rakesh Kumar — an impressive haul for someone who started training with the bow-and-arrow just two years ago.
Her transformation from a school-going girl to an Asian Para Games medallist started when she enrolled in a youth event organized by the Indian Army in Kishtwar in 2021. Sheetal caught the attention of the scouts because of her athleticism. To get her a prosthetic arm, they reached out to the Major Akshay Girish Memorial Trust in Bengaluru, which in turn contacted Being You, an online storytelling platform.
“When we saw her, we felt the prosthetic arm would not work for her. She felt like it was the end of the road,” Preethi Rai, co-founder of Being You, said.
But they did not lose hope. Climbing trees was a pastime back home, using her legs and upper body would be a silver lining.
“An assessment done by sports physiotherapist Shrikant Iyenger showed she had a very strong upper body. She got 8.5 out of 10 in the test,” Rai said. Iyengar suggested archery, swimming, and running as options.
A collective decision was taken. Sheetal would train at the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board Sports Complex in Katra.
Coaches Abhilasha Chaudhary and Kuldeep Vedwan had never trained an archer without arms. However, they had seen 2012 London Paralympics silver medallist Matt Stutzman using his legs to shoot.
Sheetal started by shooting 50-100 arrows daily; the count went up to 300 as her strength improved. Six months later, she won a silver medal at the Para Open Nationals in Sonepat. She also finished fourth when competing against able-bodied archers at the Open Nationals.
“When Kuldeep Sir made me train with the bow for the first time, I thought I could never do it. But as he made me understand the technique, I felt I should give it a try,” Sheetal said.
Earlier this year, Sheetal also won the silver medal at the World Para Archery Championships in Pilsen in the Czech Republic. She lost to Oznur Cure of Turkey in the final but became the first female armless archer to win a medal at the world championship.