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Ahuja makes her mark in winter Olympics
Alan Baldwin | February 23, 2006 17:50 IST
Moments after completing her first slalom run at the Olympics, Neha Ahuja was stopped in her tracks.
A Norwegian television interviewer asked the Alpine skier, the first Indian woman to qualify for a Winter Games, whether she knew how many Norwegians were in Wednesday's race.
"I said 'no' and he said 'one less than India'. I was shocked," she told Reuters.
Such incidents put into perspective just what the 24-year-old from New Delhi has achieved in a world far from her cultural origins.
Although Shailaja Kumar, in 1988, was the first Indian woman to compete in a Winter Olympics, Ahuja is the first to qualify since minimum standards were introduced.
"I feel so honoured that I'm the first woman from India to have qualified," said Ahuja, who will also compete in Friday's giant slalom.
"I've been waiting for this moment for the longest time. I could barely sleep," she added.
"When I got to the start, I was watching the race on TV first, and, oh my gosh, I saw all these girls and I thought 'I'm going to race with them? That's unbelievable'.
"Hopefully, next time I won't be the last person," added the skier, who finished 51st after starting 64th and last. She was more than 27 seconds slower than Swedish winner Anja Paerson, yet even that was something.
If she has not had to move mountains to realise her dreams, Ahuja has climbed a few.
Her skiing career started aged four when her father was posted to Kashmir as an officer in the Border Security Force.
"You have to walk up and you have two runs a day and you are exhausted," said Ahuja. "Sometimes, we didn't inspect the course because I didn't want to go up and down and up again."
Funding from Japan's Morita Sports Foundation enabled her to move to Vail in the United States in 1999 and study at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"It's a very expensive sport and in India we can't receive racing training. To get that you have to travel abroad," she said. "In the last two years, I've probably spent only two months at home.
"And then for women, it's a harder sport because parents are sometimes afraid to send their daughters out to different countries and cultures.
"I salute my parents for having the courage to let me live alone ... for the last seven or eight years.
"We do have people saying on and off to my parents 'how could you let your daughter go away?' but they trust me and we have this understanding that this is our goal," she added, her proud parents waiting nearby.
Ahuja might have made the 2002 Games but a knee injury in 2001 put paid to that. She almost gave up but persevered, encouraged by the chance to train in Austria.
Winning recognition at home has been harder.
"I tried getting private sponsors in India and I wrote to many companies in India and I did not get one response. That was very heartbreaking," she said."However, I don't take it personally ... It doesn't matter if I'm not famous in India, this is what I want to achieve and I will go anywhere to do so."