As a young kid in India’s capital city of Delhi, football was just one of the few fun things Aditi Chauhan loved indulging in. Today, she’s the face of the Indian women’s team, having gone through every possible hurdle in her path.
If there’s one thing I’ve realised over the years, it’s that timing matters as much as what you do with the opportunity and how much work you put in. And timing may seem like a matter of luck, but it’s a side-effect of this thing called destiny.
Merriam-Webster defines destiny as “a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency.” The Greeks believed that these events were controlled and set into motion by the Moirai, or the Fates as they are better known. Clotho (who spins the Thread of Life), Lachesis (the one who measures this Thread) and Atropos (the inflexible, inevitable death who cuts the Thread when the time comes) are the three that control the tapestry of every mortal’s and demigod’s existence from birth to death.
Yet, the beauty of this is that not everything was predetermined. Prophecies and destinies had enough room for the ones in question (or the Gods, for that matter) to possess the agency to make their own choices and arrive at a certain destination through different routes. Sometimes, it was years before a certain destiny was revealed in its entirety; before a Chosen One realised that they took that first step on their journey long ago without any idea of its implication, without even realising that they had been chosen.
For Aditi Chauhan, football was nothing more than a sport she played with friends in the park opposite her house in Delhi. Her unseen first step would come a few years later when her sports teacher asked her to trial for the Delhi U19 team as a goalkeeper. Throughout school, she had always participated in all the sports that she could–she was a youth state basketball team player and a black belt–and she didn’t consider this anymore than an opportunity to play another sport. At the trial, she was selected as the second-choice keeper; her sports teacher had been correct in his assessment that the good hand-eye coordination, grip and reflexes from basketball would be to her advantage.
It would take two more years for Aditi to consider football as a serious avenue for her future. In 2008, she got a call-up for the India U19 camp trials. As one of 52 other girls, Aditi had to work hard over the three-month long camp to make it to the final. And she realised how much she enjoyed it. “I found myself falling in love with this game,” she said.
Her natural competitiveness aided her hard work, and at the end of the camp, she made it to the starting 11. The chips were falling in place.
“Since my first break in the U19 team and later the national team, that feeling of representing my country, singing the national anthem – it left a lifelong imprint and helped me push myself further than anyone had gone before.”
Nobody could have predicted that this belief in herself, this determination to demand better from herself and train hard for it would be her biggest strength at a crucial juncture in her future. Then again, the Fates never reveal all their cards at once. Heroes, typically, have to earn this information through trials and tasks that prove that they are worthy of them. They have to trust their instincts and make tough decisions.
Aditi would face the first of two difficult choices in quick succession. There was the risk of simply opting for a career in sports, especially football, in a country like India, as a woman. How could she convince her father, who wanted her to play tennis instead, that there was a future for her in football, when she didn’t know what it would look like?
Next was her decision to go abroad, specifically to Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, for a masters in Sports Management. Loughborough has a long legacy of excellence in sports, and Aditi, having done her homework, was in contact with the university team even before she arrived on campus.
It helped that her conviction was as strong and clear as it was, but she admits that it was a risk, especially financially. “It was a big financial investment for my parents (her father’s the current Inspector General of CRPF, Jammu), but they understood my passion and supported me.” It’s an investment that would pay off more than they imagined, though women footballers still earn far less than their male counterparts. Aditi, after graduating, moved to London for an internship and, again, quite unknowingly walked right into her future.
Even now there’s a sense of disbelief in her voice. “I had honestly not realised that it (signing for West Ham) would be such a big deal; my purpose to go for trials was just to keep playing football at a higher level so I could continue to improve!” Though once she signed for them, her competitiveness kicked in and she rose to the challenge of seeing if she had what it took to play at that level.
And rise she did. The latter half of 2015 was a rollercoaster year for the 24-year-old. She became the first Indian woman to play league football in England, and won the Asian woman footballer of the year award, but also faced a battle to remain in the UK after the expiry of her student visa. Getting a visa sponsorship is a long, tricky process, but when you’re a Chosen One, the Fates do step in where they must. Loughborough University offered her a part-time position so that she could continue to represent the Hammers while on a work visa sponsored by the university. “They have supported me in every way so that I can pursue my dream,” Aditi said. She added, “There have been a lot of challenges all along this journey, but when you work sincerely and hard and have a clear focus, you find a way to work things out.”
She would need all of that strength and belief to recover from the most serious challenge of her career. In February 2017 she suffered an ACL injury that has since sidelined her. The surgery and intensive rehabilitation that’s followed came at a bad time. Aditi’s work visa with Loughborough was only for a year and if she didn’t enter the UK in two months, it would be cancelled. There was no confirmation yet on whether they would renew; it was something no one expected to have to deal with that soon. On top of that, she was having a good season at West Ham, was excited about the AFC qualifiers with the national team, and was training for her next set of goals.
“I was devastated,” Aditi Chauhan said.
But like all heroes, in the hardest moments of their journey, Aditi dug deep for extra courage and resilience. The immediate priority was, of course, the surgery. She was still coming to terms with things and hadn’t accepted the reality of what she faced. “I was apprehensive and scared, but on the national team physio’s recommendation, I did a prehab for a month before the surgery. It was really helpful in my rehab progress.” As she talks through what happened, and the months that followed, you get a sense of her coming to terms with the reality and regaining the spirit that had characterised her till then. “I realised I had to take it one day at a time. The harder I worked physically, the stronger it made me mentally – [that] I can overcome this and be fit enough to play again.”
Even then, it’s a lonely road and a far from easy one, and Aditi’s grateful that at every point in her career when she’s needed her family and close friends, they have been there, in her corner, supporting her. “Having them around, especially during the first two months post-surgery was so important for me.” And she has the biggest motivation of them all. “The only thing that keeps me going is wanting to wear the Indian jersey again and play the sport I love. It keeps me going on the days I don’t feel like it.”
Another thing that keeps her going now is reading autobiographies of athletes like Rafael Nadal and Hope Solo, who she looks up to. There’s also another avenue that is increasingly offering up inspiration – Indian female athletes. “Their stories inspire me because I know how hard it is to succeed at the international level.”
Change is coming, however slowly, to women’s sports in India, and these are baby steps in the right direction. Aditi agrees. “When I started, we didn’t really have many girls football teams at the school level. Now almost all the schools have one, as well as various tournaments.” She also talks about the new Indian Women’s League. “It’s a great start for professionalism in women’s football, but there’s a lot more that can and must be done because from my experience, I know that there is a lot of potential.” There’s passion and desire in her voice to lead from the front, to be part of the catalyst for this change. She urges the authorities to believe in them as much as she does. “The women’s national team can achieve a lot if we have a clear realistic plan and get the right guidance and investment to achieve that.”
Her favourite memories include her first match in the Indian and West Ham United jerseys respectively, winning the 2012 SAFF Women’s Championship with the senior national team, and playing in Kolhapur, in front of a crowd of about 20,000 for a friendly game against a Dutch team. She wants more girls to experience their own versions of those moments and is convinced that following a passion with focus, discipline and hard work will lead us down the path we’re supposed to be on, the path that helps us achieve our dreams, even though there are crests and troughs along the way.
For this 25-year-old leading by example, the next stop on that journey is Indonesia, where, in August, she hopes to represent her country at the Asian Games. For someone who fell into the sport by the helpful push of destiny, Aditi couldn’t have belonged more if she had tried. “I’m happiest when I’m kicking a ball.” None of us have the privilege of insights into the minds of the Fates, but it seems like the right timing is fast approaching in Aditi’s journey again, and when it arrives, she’ll be ready with the gloves on and the ball at her feet.