Olympian athlete, actress, educationist, social worker… Ashwini Nachappa has donned many roles with élan. In a freewheeling chat with SOORAJ RAJMOHAN she touches on her career and the future of Indian athletics

Huge crowds turned out to watch Indian athletics some three decades ago. For the circuit not only had world-class runners like P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson, there were also some very pretty girls on the track.

And Ashwini Nachappa was the most glamorous girl around. Hailed as India’s Flo-Jo, after the beautiful American Olympic champion Florence-Griffith Joyner, the girl from Kodagu became a sensation when she shocked P.T. Usha at the Open Nationals at New Delhi and the International Invitational Permit Meet in 1991. But Olympian and Asian star Ashwini Nachappa not only stood out on the track. She turned out to be a versatile woman, for she went on to become an actress and later settled into the role of an educationist and an advocate for clean sport.

Ashwini carries her many achievements with quiet pride and composure, rather than being weighed down by the recognition and fanfare that comes with it. Looking rather fashionably chic in a bright pink top and jeans, she answers questions with a smile, but with conviction.

The beginnings

Ashwini grins mischievously as she recalls her beginnings as an athlete, “I started out when my family moved to Bangalore. There was a stadium opposite our house and my mother decided it would be safer for my sister and myself to play there than on the roads. It was there that I met Mohinder Singh Gill, who used to bribe me with nutrient sweets for every lap I completed. So you could say that it was nutrient sweets that started me off!”

A sweet start then (pun intended), but was it all smooth sailing? In a nation where a large section of women is yet to get their due, what was it like being a woman athlete in the 80s? Ashwini believes it was the outlook of her parents that paved the way for her smooth progress. “My parents were very supportive throughout my career. They never raised any issues whatsoever and my mother used to be in the stands to watch me, right till the day I retired,” she says with pride.

After bidding goodbye to professional athletics, she dabbled in acting, working on five Telugu movies including the hugely successful Ínspector Ashwini, which saw her don the role of a cop. Her college education also helped her build a successful corporate career, which she eventually left to take up greater causes, providing education and sports training, and propagating clean sport.

Despite being a part of the glory days of Indian athletics, she believes there is much to be done to improve the state of the sport today. “Nowadays the interest of parents and children has shifted more towards education and sport has suffered as a result. In fact, there are some schools opening now that do not even have a playground!”, she says with an appalled look, before continuing, “we need more facilities for athletes from the grassroots level, they require physical as well as mental training.”

Sport and education

It is this desire to take education and sport forward hand-in-hand that has prompted Ashwini to start her own school. The institution, Karaumbiah’s Academy for Learning and Sports (KALS) is an ICSE school located in Coorg that houses on its premises ‘Áshwini’s Sports Foundation’, an academy that provides training in various sporting disciplines such as athletics, hockey and swimming, with golf and air pistol training facilities on the way. On the education front, KALS provides schooling from kindergarten to Class XII. Ashwini believes that encouraging community sports and building a following outside cities is important in encouraging youngsters to take up sports, a philosophy she is trying to employ with the Coorg hockey scene.

It would appear that her academic ventures are reaping benefits, with the best sportspersons from her school now being offered college seats by reputed institutions. “Though sport is what I have always been associated with, education is also necessary. I have been able to have a successful career outside sport because I was fortunate enough to have a college education. Many of the people I used to compete with and against have not been so fortunate, and that’s why I decided to start a combined school and sports academy,” she explains.

Now that the school is up and running, she has turned her attention to promoting clean sport. She is a founding member of Clean Sports India, an organisation that aims to facilitate better management of Olympic sports in India and discourage drug use among athletes. The initiative has seen her join hands with athletes like Mercy Kuttan and Vandana Rao to help uphold the integrity of sport in the country.

Between being a former Olympian and movie star as well as an educationist and full time mom, Ashwini Nachappa has her hands full. But her vision is as clear as ever as she focuses on nurturing talent and putting India on the sports and athletics map in a big way. If the poise with which she juggles all the facets of her life is anything to go by, the athletes of the next generation can relax a little in the knowledge that they are in safe hands.

For those interested to know more about KALS, contact: Asha Thomas Fenn, Corporate Consultant and Academic Advisor. Mob: +91 9446801600. Email: asha_1960@hotmail.com