Image Credits: @shivanichirag
Every great story has a mythos; something that starts the plot, drives the narrative and provides an obstacle for the main character to overcome. These works of fiction tell stories rarely seen in real life, but every once in a while, there is a true story that seems to tell a story with a mythos equally as captivating.
Shivani Charak is one of the living embodiments to this sentiment. The number of obstacles she’s had to overcome you may have been excused for thinking her obsession lay neither in cricket nor football, but climbing – a pretty physically demanding sport.
Shivani battled cancer at the age of nine and then went on to pick a physically strenuous sport – climbing, and becoming the No.1 woman sport climber in India in a span of few years. The Jammu & Kashmir native’ story is so splendour; so anomalous, so exhilarating theme of her uncompromising grit and determination, and the will to succeed.
Born and brought up in Jammu, Charak has twin brothers and a sister. After three years of struggling with ovarian cancer, in 2012, she was declared cancer-free. Shivani didn’t let cancer halt her pursuit of climbing and she took up the sport aged 12 with a renewed vigour and confidence that saw her growing in stature, maturity, bravery and strength and that ultimately worked her way up the ladder. She also got support from her brothers who accompanied her daily to practice.
Passion often brings out the rawest of human emotions. It is what drives us and defines us – and Shivani has certainly done that. Even when she was at her lowest, the family members came together to lift her back up to win many laurels and to become a top-ranked woman sports climber in the country, and Shivani has epitomised this in her fight against cancer.
Shivani was India’s big lead climbing standout of the 2019 season. One of her most impressive performances was a bronze medal at Asian Youth Championships. She also won gold at the Nationals and in 2016, participated in the World Cup.
Shivani, who is currently studying at Govt. College for Women, Parade Ground, Jammu, is an adept all-arounder, but lead is her favourite. She is one of the most exciting competitors to watch because of her relentless, all-out approach to every move. She appears calm and comfortable in any climbing format and will likely be a megastar as competition climbing continues to find convincing grandstand in her country.
The 19-year-old climber is now part of Welspun Super Sport Women programme that has been supporting her financially. Shivani’s career is only just beginning, and the only way is up.
She wants to bring many laurels for India, and her big goal is also the 2022 Asian Games and she is certainly talented enough to do so. One of the most remarkable things about her battle with cancer is that it seems to have strengthened Shivani’s resolve, and will ultimately make her a better climber in the long run. This has been a story of determination and victory. The mythos of Shivani’s story didn’t defeat her – it only made her stronger – and it will be a joy to see how high she will be able to rise in years to come.
Hello Shivani, we are delighted to interview you, your journey of beating cancer at a young age to becoming India’s top woman sport climber is something very touching and heart-warming, a local female climber from Jammu & Kashmir who is one of the most exciting competitors to watch in the country – gaining heights in many senses of the word. Let’s begin with the basics, what does climb mean to you?
During my initial schooling days, I didn't aware of the fact that climbing was a sport. In India, only very few people would know that there is a sport called climbing. It is also an Olympic sport now. When I started climbing, I thought that it was just climbing some mountains and then when I started practising, I still remember being half-terrified and half-exhilarated the first time I clawed my way up the wall – with my hand vice gripping each hold for dear life. Since then, I became totally hooked and it is safe to say climbing has become less of a sport and more of a lifestyle to me.
Before I fell sick during my school days, I loved my PT class and liked to play sports and, in my village, we used to climb mountains as our playtime. And nearby my grandparents’ home too, we used to climb mountains and trees and play with my brothers and sisters. In 2010, I have been diagnosed with cancer. I was not made informed about it in the initial days. After recovering from cancer, I started to practise climbing saying that I will do it and I wanted to do climbing. In the beginning, felt a little weak but then slowly I got recovered I took climbing seriously and competitions began and my interest in climbing started to grow. I wanted to make my parents proud so I choose climbing as my passion. It has become such an ingrained part of my life that I genuinely don’t know how I managed to live without it. For the last two years, I am India’s top women's sports climber and I really feel good about it and wanted to maintain the same for the coming years.
You were a natural athlete who did not pick up climbing until age 14 / or 15 (you only picked up after you completely diagnosed with cancer). But you quickly proved proficient in all disciplines, what initially attracted you to climbing and how did you get involved with the competition setting of climbing?
As I said earlier, I have undergone cancer treatment and after that, I kept telling myself that I have to do climbing. As my sister used to do climbing in her school days and seeing that I decided that I will also do climbing. My grandfather, who was a freedom fighter and have also been in World War II, so, when I fell sick due to cancer at that time, I do not like to eat anything. He often says to me that, “you have to do something for your country and If you keep just lying and do not eat properly how will you do climb? Nothing will happen with the words you say, show them in action If you really wanted to do climbing in life.” He [grandfather] is the one who always used to level up my confidence. He is an incredible motivator in my life. Then I decided that my dream is to accomplish well in climbing and make my family and country proud.
What goes through your mind when you climbing?
My full-focus will be on climbing nothing else in mind. During my first-time climbing experience, when I reached the top and looked down it was a little scary because of height. Then slowly, I overcame that fear of heights and now I can climb anywhere irrespective of any height. Nowadays, the only thing that matters is working out how to ascend higher and giving my 100%.
Where is your favourite climbing?
There are three types of climbing: Lead, bouldering and speed. Lead climbing is my favourite climbing and I love doing it. Lead and speed both I do. Most of the times I love climbing the walls, so, yes, lead is my favourite. I train maximum time with my brothers and I enjoy doing it.
All know that you are successful in your sport. But the first win and the first medal are always special. Do you remember your 1st success as a climber? If yes, how will you describe that moment?
For the first time, when I saw the Indian climbing team, I got goosebumps and that is the time I decided that I too wanted to own that jersey for myself through hard work and practice. I received the Indian jersey which was a dream come true for me. Later, I participated in the World Cup Championship and that was the proudest moment in my life and Asian Youth Championship in which I bagged my first international medal that is also an unforgettable moment to date.
How would you describe your climbing style? Do you have a specific style that you like to climb or set?
I make my mind free and start climbing, I keep my full focus on the climbing wall. I do lead climbing with stretch and heights. My forte is endurance climbing so that I can climb for a longer period of time.
Obviously, cancer puts your whole life on hold, that too at the age of 9, is quite scary but the way you had overcome is truly amazing. Tell us about the difficulties you have faced. How long were you in treatment? Who/What helped keep your spirits up and gave you support during this period?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I took treatment in Chandigarh and Jammu & Kashmir, which took nearly three years. And now also regularly, I keep a tab on my fitness. I was not aware that I had cancer, but then my family took me to Chandigarh for treatment. I was not able to drink water and eat anything, I would puke all the time and my chemotherapy sessions were the most horrible ones because I lost my hair and also my eyebrow hair too. I never knew that when will I get it back. The very first time my hair started to shed was on the day it was Holi celebration at home and after which I came back to clean all of a sudden, my hair started to shed, seeing that I began crying badly and went into the store-room and locked myself saying that, NO, I wanted my hair back and until it comes back, I wouldn’t come out of the room. Then my family with a lot of love, they convinced me saying it will grow back in sometime.
When slowly I got recovered, I started to go to school few of my friends used to bully me saying that you are bald you don't have hair on your head, because it took a long time for my hair to grow back. Many comments like that shattered my self-worth and I felt so ignored, was ashamed and very-low during those days. For a girl, hair is the most important and prominent feature of the body, without which I was incomplete.
Sport on an elite pathway requires dedication and commitment; aside from providing funding and transport for training, how did your parents support you emotionally pre-competition?
Generally, it is the athletes who perform well and get recognized. But in my case, my family are the people who are from the very first day who they are like my lifeline and supporters. Climbing materials and training are expensive compared to other sports. For my parents, it was very difficult to manage the expense as we four kids at home and they need to take care of all of us. But they never said no to my climbing interest and sports.
Later in tournaments, we [siblings] four of them got selected but it was very difficult for my parents to find a sponsor on a foreign trip to participate. Welspun Group was the one who came forward to sponsor my tournaments and they did support my climbing journey. I played two competitions in China and Indonesia where I learnt and got a lot of exposure. Later, I bagged a medal in the Asian Youth Championship. So related to tournaments, sports accessories, etc… Welspun Group manages for me and I would like to thank them for supporting me and believed in me that I can become No.1 in the country.
Anyone who has met you will comment on your grace and how cool, calm and collected you are. How do you handle those climbing nerves?
I would say I have a fear of failure, but climbing helps me manage this and learn to take risks in everyday life again. Climbing forces me to confront and overcome my fear, anxiety and negative thoughts. Whenever someone or other athletes tries to demotivate or pass negative comments, I just pick up my air pods and listen to music and start climbing, also I do meditation and do some good yoga to relax.
No one can take the drive I have for climbing away from me. Climbing with my brothers has always been my favourite experience. They are the ones who motivate me and bring the positive vibes around me, I just stick around with them always. As they keep telling me that I should not take any tension or pressure, just be clam and practice my climbing and I just go with that.
How do you manage your studies and climbing together?
I do climb practice from the morning and till evening. Post that when I come back home, I do my studies. After my college hours, I go climbing and then later in the evening, I sit with my studies, that’s how I manage. Though it is quite difficult but now I got used to that.
Climbing requires a very specialized skill set; the challenge is not only to climb but to climb while also dealing with nervousness, scores, judges, a cheering crowd, what would you say is one aspect of your sport that is a real strength for you?
During the competition, I will not be able to hear anything, yes if we hear them cheering up it will really give me a lot of strength to reach on the top and give my best. Cheering gives me a boost and motivation which makes me feel really good.
How do you prepare yourself before a mission?
Before the competition, I practice in Jammu and take training in Delhi. I attend camps which are happening now and then. This is how I plan and prepare myself before any competition.
What is your most memorable climbing moment?
The best day till now and the proudest moment for me was when I won the Asian Championshipin Dec. 2020. I also do training with the Delhi Army team, my brothers who treat me like their own sister/daughter and give training that makes me feel like my home and completely secured.
What else do you do? Is there something else that you do that you like to perfect outside of climbing?
Swimming is a sport I like to do. When I become very tired after my climbing sessions, I like to swim and that makes me feel good. In the beginning, my brothers pushed me into the river which is there in my hometown, I did not know how to swim at all and then my grandfather came and recused me. Later I learnt how to swim and I really enjoy swimming now.
Out of all the climbs you have undertaken till date, which would you say was the toughest one and why?
I did not feel anything tough in climbing. For the first time, I went for selection and it did not happen because I really worked hard during my practice sessions. I literally cried a lot and was the worst moment of my life. Then, I gave my 200% for the next tournament I got selected for the Asian Youth Championship.
What lies ahead for you this year, and what are you most excited about?
Due to Covid-19, many tournaments have not happened. So, I am excited about the upcoming tournaments I wish it happens fast and looking forward to it. As a sports person sitting at home one-full-year due to lockdown was really tough. So, I wish all the tournaments happen this year and I am really excited.
Do you have a favourite motto?
My parents and grandparents keep telling me that you should be the best version of yourself. And yes, that’s one of my favourite mottos to live by.
Your bucket lists?
Win in Asian games, Olympics.
Prefer climbing indoors or outdoors?
Of course, outdoors.