On India’s tropical west coast, you can find a young girl with a permanent smile that stretches from ear to ear. She’s not afraid of a conversation and speaks with the wisdom of a woman well beyond her years. Her name is Tanvi Jagadish, and she is not your average 17-year-old. She’s a professional athlete, the first professional female athlete in a relatively new sport in the country: StandUp Paddle.
Being a professional athlete sounds glorious, but in India, a country where the lasting effects of the Caste system, family ideas of gender roles, and sexual abuse towards women have created barriers for women to participate in sport, it is largely an uphill battle for female athletes trying to make a name for themselves.
As difficult as it may be, Tanvi is pushing back against the status quo and the advice of her family to pursue her passion for SUP.
The SUP scene in India is small and relatively young, but a core group of athletes have banded together and are pushing for the growth and development of the sport.
“Indians are not ready to open their eyes to a new sport. Everyone is focused solely on cricket,” Tanvi explained. “We currently have two national competitions for SUP, and even a women’s division, but we only have four to five female competitors.”
“…to see the entire international community united and behind me was amazing. That’s what I remember most from the world championship, the ISA unity and global support of women’s SUP.”
Tanvi started practicing SUP at only 9 years old. Growing up an only child in Mangalore, located on India’s west coast, Tanvi grew up watching the boys of her town Surfing and SUPing, until one day they encouraged her to give it a try.
“I was scared at first of the board and the ocean. I would sit on the board and just row, but I quickly gained confidence and fell in love with it.”
Tanvi progressed in SUP and realized the talent that she possessed, but cultural norms were still impeding her from pursuing her dream of becoming a professional SUP racer.
“There is no opportunity for girls in India,” she said. “My parents are afraid to let me leave the house because of teasing and sexual abuse. In India technology and education are advancing rapidly, but women’s rights have not kept up.”
While Indian society may not have accepted Tanvi’s passion for SUP, she found a core group of people that were more than happy to provide their support. She joined Mantra Surf Club, where she found a family of surfers and SUPers ready to receive her with open arms in a healthy environment free of drugs and alcohol. She also received strong support from the Surfing Swami Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping teach surfing and environmental awareness to children.
As Tanvi grew older, she asserted herself as one of the premier female SUP racers in the country. Her dreams of representing her nation in an international competition came true last year when she was selected to compete in the 2016 Fiji ISA World SUP and Paddleboard Championship.
“I was determined to represent my country. I trained harder and longer and won four consecutive national championships. I wanted to go to Fiji so bad!” she stated.
Being selected to compete was the first step, but raising the money to make it happen was an equally hard hurdle to overcome. Thanks to support from Karnataka Bank in India, various donors, accommodation provided by Tourism Fiji, and a borrowed board, Tanvi was able to make it happen and fulfill her dream.
“…I would tell them to believe that what they are doing is right and to love what you do. Your mind will tell you that you can’t do it. Never listen to your mind. Listen to your heart.”
“I was star struck going to Fiji and competing with the elite athletes in the world, but more than anything I was inspired to do my best.
“I met the world’s best racers and received great advice from athletes like Casper Steinfath (DEN), Alejandra Brito (MEX), and Candice Appleby (USA).”
Tanvi’s dream of representing her country culminated at the end of the grueling 18km SUP Distance Race at the ISA Worlds. Racing on a less than ideal, borrowed board in brutal, windless conditions, Tanvi fell to the back of the pack. While she was the last of the competitors to finish, as Tanvi approached the finish line she noticed something odd.
“When I got to the finish line I was surprised to see that everyone was waiting for me and cheering. In India there are few people that support me, just a few close friends, so to see the entire international community united and behind me was amazing. That’s what I remember most from the world championship, the ISA unity and global support of women’s SUP.”
This ISA unity and support for SUP comes about after years of the ISA driving the global development of the sport. As the international governing body of SUP, the ISA has led the growth of the sport via hosting World Championships, certifying instructors and achieving inclusion in Olympic Movement multisport events.
Recently, however, the ISA’s authority has been challenged by the International Canoe Federation (ICF) causing confusion and uncertainty in the SUP community.
SUP athletes are now speaking out on the matter and Tanvi, who has been a beneficiary of the ISA’s development of SUP via the Surfing Federation of India, stated her position:
“All of the progress of SUP in India has been driven by the ISA and Surfing Federation of India (SFI). The SUP competitions that spur growth in the sport have all been organized by SFI, so clearly the ISA is the best vehicle for the future development of the sport. After all, it’s only because of Surfing that StandUp Paddle exists today.”
Through the ISA World Championship Tanvi gained invaluable experience to take back to her country. While the event was a major milestone for SUP in India, there is still a lot of room for progress back home for the future growth of the sport.
“Surfing is growing fast in India, but SUP is still growing slowly. In the future it’s my dream to see India have a strong female SUP community, but this depends on freedom for girls. Right now most girls don’t want to play sports and their parents wouldn’t let them if they did, so we have some cultural barriers to overcome.”
Tanvi is not sitting back and letting the growth of SUP take its course. She is taking it into her own hands by giving free lessons to girls in India, converting them one at a time to experience the joy of the ocean and water sports.
Tanvi concluded, “I have been put down so many times for pursuing my passion. If I could give advice to others out there in my situation, I would tell them to believe that what they are doing is right and to love what you do. Your mind will tell you that you can’t do it. Never listen to your mind. Listen to your heart.”
Tanvi recently traveled to the USA and competed in the largest SUP race in the world, the Carolina Cup. She successfully placed third in the 17-and-under age division.
Keep an eye out for this up-and-coming star on the international SUP scene.
The International Surfing Association (ISA), founded in 1964, is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the World Governing Authority for Surfing. The ISA governs and defines Surfing as Shortboard, Longboard & Bodyboarding, StandUp Paddle (SUP) Racing and Surfing, Bodysurfing, Wakesurfing, and all other wave riding activities on any type of waves, and on flat water using wave riding equipment. The ISA crowned its first Men’s and Women’s World Champions in 1964. It crowned the first Big Wave World Champion in 1965; World Junior Champion in 1980; World Kneeboard Champions in 1982; World Longboard Surfing and World Bodyboard Champions in 1988; World Tandem Surfing Champions in 2006; World Masters Champions in 2007; and World StandUp Paddle (SUP, both surfing and racing) and Paddleboard Champions in 2012.
ISA membership includes the surfing National Governing Bodies of 104 countries on five continents. Its headquarters are located in La Jolla, California. It is presided over by Fernando Aguerre (Argentina), first elected President in 1994 in Rio de Janeiro. The ISA’s four Vice-Presidents are Karín Sierralta (PER), Kirsty Coventry (ZIM), Casper Steinfath (DEN) and Barbara Kendall (NZL).