51st place and smiling
SESTRIERE, Italy – The Olympic experience is something entirely different for Neha Ahuja, who wore bib No. 64 in Wednesday’s slalom.Her road to becoming an Olympian is unprecedented – a watershed moment in India’s sporting history.Ahuja, 24, is the first woman from her country to qualify for the Winter Olympics. It’s an improbable achievement considering women in India aren’t expected to follow athletic pursuits, and skiing is a relatively unknown sport there.She finished 51st Wednesday. But the result is not why she came.Fog descended on the stadium and race course as Ahuja wrapped up her first and only run. She blew a kiss into a television camera after crossing the finish line, then slung her skis over her shoulder and walked out of the finish area.”I’ve been waiting for this moment for the longest time,” said Ahuja, whose early ski experience included hiking up the Himalayas and then racing down. “I could barely sleep last night because I was so anxious to get up in the morning and go. I feel on top of the world.”Ahuja grew up near a small Himalayan resort for which her father, a former colonel in the Indian army, was the winter sports director. Gulmarg, the ski area that she, her sister and father frequented, featured one poma lift.”The resort still has one poma bar that’s 20 to 30 years old,” Ahuja said. “It’s so slow. You can walk faster.” And walk she did. “Most races, we had to walk some if not all of the slope,” she said. “We took two runs and were exhausted. Sometimes we didn’t get to inspect the course. I was like, ‘I’m just going.’ I wouldn’t want to inspect the course because I didn’t want to walk up again.”When Ahuja was 16, she moved Eagle County and took up with Ski Club Vail. The disparity was immediately – painfully – clear.”I felt it sometimes, that people thought, ‘OK. She’s from India. She’s not a very good skier.’ But I knew that was the fact,” she said. “It took me a while to realize they were born with skis on their feet.”Ahuja, with the financial support of Joe Morita of Sony Corp., went on to study and ski at the University of Colorado, and afterward she trained with coaches in Japan and then Austria.”Even now when I train in Austria, I cry after races, like, ‘Why are these 15-year-old girls beating me by so much time?'” Ahuja said. “My coach was like, ‘Neha, they started racing when they were 5 years old. You started racing when you were 20 years old.’ Later on, when you sit down and think about it, you think, ‘Yeah. That can make a difference.'”Ahuja’s nationality is both a blessing and a curse. Her status has brought her a significant amount of fame in her home country, but doesn’t get the financial support Indian athletes in more conventional sports do. There are three other Indians – all men – competing at these Olympics: two in bobsled, and the other is a cross-country skier.”You have to realize that India is not the richest country,” she said. “We don’t get [ski] equipment in India, we have a hard time getting sponsors. I’ve spent 15 years of my life trying to make this my goal and achieve it.”Coming from a country where women are still subject to arranged marriages and dowries created another hurdle.”I have people saying on and off to my parents, ‘How can you let your daughter go?'” Ahuja said. “For women, it’s the hardest sport because parents are afraid to send their daughters to different countries and different cultures.”But Ahuja had strong family support.”I salute my parents for having the courage to let me live alone, outside from under their eyes,” she said. “We have this understanding that this is our goal.”The understanding appeared to have come full circle on Wednesday. Col. Ahuja’s smile was so big after his daughter’s first run on the slalom course that it was to difficult to see his eyes.While he swelled with pride after seeing Neha Ahuja come down the race course, the biggest moment of pride came when his daughter carried the Indian flag around the stadium in front of thousands of spectators at the opening ceremony. She said she barely remembers the ceremony because she was in such a state of awe and happiness.”To carry my national flag was an honor. It was the greatest thing,” she said.To Ahuja, the Olympic experience isn’t about being racer No. 64 or finisher No. 51. “I’m so lucky and fortunate to be here, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “There are many athletes from many nationalities who don’t even get to start in the Olympics.”Ahuja will also compete in Friday’s giant slalom.
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.