For sport climber Shivani Charak, the journey from talented youngster to Olympian-in-waiting has been a little bumpier than for most. Aged 10 years old, the wildly energetic Indian was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and rushed into intensive chemotherapy.
“My parents didn’t tell me when the cancer was detected. They took me to hospital, and it was only when I was there that I discovered I had cancer. I was scared, very scared,” said Charak, now India’s no.1-ranked female sport climber.
“It would have been impossible for me to believe, when I had cancer, that I would be an Olympian. I wasn’t able to even drink water or eat a single mouthful without vomiting. I couldn’t move, my parents would have to carry me to the bathroom. It was a terrible time.”
The always-slight Charak, now 17, went through three years of treatment and recovery, losing all her hair along the way. But those closest to her never allowed her to stop believing that a better future was just around the corner.
“My parents and close family gave me so much encouragement and always said I would recover and get better and, when I did, it felt like my second birth,” Charak said, smiling. “And then I wanted to do something to make my parents and all those who helped proud of me.”
Charak, who had spent much of her early childhood roaming the hilly regions of her native Jammu region, picked sport climbing. It was a good choice. Her progress has been frighteningly fast.
In 2018, just three years after starting to climb competitively, the then 16-year-old won three golds, two silvers and a bronze medal across nine national-level competitions. A rise to the top of the rankings in India was sealed when she placed ninth at the 2018 Asian Youth Championships before finishing 11th in bouldering at the senior women’s Asia Cup event in Bangkok, Thailand. This run of results has left her on the brink of what had once seemed utterly impossible.
“I am very excited about Tokyo 2020; it is on my mind all the time,” Charak said, unable to contain a grin. “But I am trying to be very calm and approach it in a focused manner. I read about the Olympic Games all the time when I was younger and we studied it in school, but the last Olympics [Rio 2016] were the first ones I saw on television. This is such a big opportunity for me.”
Charak’s first chance to grab a quota spot may come at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s second Olympic qualification event in Toulouse, France, in late November. But it is more likely that the teenager will end up heading to the 2020 Asian Continental Championships in Morioka, Japan, knowing that a winning performance will send her to Tokyo later in the year.
Like all wannabe sport climbing Olympians, Charak is busy ensuring she is the complete package: a climber who can excel across the three disciplines of speed, bouldering and lead climbing. It is a task that requires total dedication.
“At the beginning of the week I will do one discipline in the morning and then in the evening I’ll switch and then do the third the next morning,” she explained. “And then I’ll focus for three days on just one discipline and then switch and spend three days on the next discipline, and then finally three days on the third discipline. It’s hard but fun.”
The sport, which enjoyed a spectacular debut at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in October 2018, demands full physical commitment. But there is one area of the body every climber has to prioritise, no matter the pain.
“I’ll hang off my finger board for five minutes at a time,” Charak laughed. “I am used to it now, I am pretty tough. And I do one-finger, two-finger, three-finger pull-ups and push-ups. And I use a spring-loaded grip exerciser.”
Such regular punishment requires serious care and attention.
“I use warm salt water to relax my fingers and hands and keep them healthy and happy,” the Indian athlete said. “And lots of Vaseline. I look after my toes and feet too, using the warm salt water, but they don’t need as much attention as my hands.”
For the tireless Charak, there is one other aspect of her chosen sport which lifts it above all others.
“The route setters set the route, but then we have to decide the moves, the way we get up, and we do this by discussing it together, all of us just before we race against each other,” Charak explained. “It’s an amazing part of climbing, so positive. Everyone wants you to succeed.”
You would have to go a long way to find someone who does not want Charak to succeed. Tokyo 2020 will mark five years since the Delhi resident emerged from her sickbed and began her journey ever upwards.
“Now I am absolutely healthy,” Charak beamed. “There is no trace of the cancer and the doctors have said I can have children and do anything – even become an Olympian.”