Several Indian women have excelled on the sporting stage over the years, across sport. Some have pulled out all the stops in the track-and-field arena, some on the tennis court, and some not even on a playing field.
Here, we profile 10 iconic women who have represented India on the world sporting stage:
Nicknamed the ‘Payyoli Express,’ PT Usha was one of India’s earliest and most well-known track-and-field icons. The Kerala-born sprinter represented India at the Olympic Games on multiple occasions over her long and illustrious career.
She would eventually become one of the country’s most decorated track and field athletes, but Usha was a prodigy who showed promise early on. At only 16 years old, Usha became the youngest ever Indian sprinter at the Olympic Games, representing the country in Moscow in 1980. That would be the first of three Olympic games she participated in, and she would better her performance exponentially in 1984.
At the next Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles, Usha set the best time in the semi-finals, progressing easily to the finals of the event. Eventually, however she would end up missing out on a medal spot by the slimmest of margins – a hundredth of a second.
Usha had her biggest successes at the Asian Games, with a staggering six silver medals and four golds across disciplines. She was also equally good at each, winning medals at the 200m, 400m, the relay and the hurdles.
At the 1984 Olympics, Usha set an event record the first time the 400m hurdles was added to the women’s athletics at the Olympic Games. Although that record has since been broken elsewhere, it continues to be the Indian National Record.
She received the Arjuna Award in 1984, and was then conferred India’s third-highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, later that same year.
Since her retirement, Usha has kept close to the sport she once excelled at. She opened the PT Usha Training Academies, and trained Olympian Tintu Lukka.
One of Indian badminton’s most well-known names, Jwala Gutta shot to prominence as a junior, and at 17 years old won the Women’s Junior National Badminton Championships in 2000.
With partner Ashwini Ponnappa, Gutta is one of the world’s top-ranked doubles players, and has become known for her aggressive, attacking game.
Although Gutta had had success with former partner Shruti Kurien, the pair split in 2010, which is when Gutta joined forces with the then 20-year-old Ponnappa. That would prove to be the breakthrough the pair needed, and they would go on to win gold at the Commonwealth Games later that same year.
The following years proved fruitful for Gutta, who with Ponnappa won India’s first ever doubles Badminton World Championship medal, only the second time India had won a medal at the tournament.
Gutta went on to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics in both the women’s and mixed doubles, and although she took a short hiatus from the sport following the Olympics, came back resoundingly to find herself in the top 10 in the women’s doubles.
She is the only player to be in the world’s top 10 rankings in the women’s and mixed doubles.
India’s field hockey captain Ritu Rani began training towards a hockey career at the age of 12 – and her precocious talent would soon be seen on the world stage. At only 15 years old, Ritu became the youngest ever player in the Indian Senior Hockey team that played that year’s Hockey World Cup in Madrid, Spain.
She was again part of the national squad that won the 2009 Hockey Champions Challenge II, and was then the top-scorer at the tournament.
Ritu not only had goalscoring success but displayed a consistency in her gameplay that saw Hockey India appoint her the captain of the women’s national squad at only 19, a post she continues to hold to this day.
Under her captaincy, the team has qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – the first time in 36 years that the women’s national team has qualified.
Archery is not a sport that is given much attention, but Deepika Kumari has excelled despite the odds. The daughter of a nurse and a rickshaw driver, Deepika used sticks, stones and bamboo shoots to practice archery, a sport she wanted to pursue but could not afford.
Eventually, Deepika joined a training academy in Jamshedpur that helped hone her talent; that would pay off, and she won the junior title 2006 Archery World Cup in Mexico after beginning her training at only 15 years of age.
She has excelled in the recurve in both team and individual events, and in 2009’s Youth World Archery championships, took the gold medal in both alongside teammates Dola Banerjee and Bombayla Devi, with the latter still her teammate.
Deepika won two gold medals, one each at the same two events, at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi the following year.
In 2012, following her individual World Cup gold in Turkey, Deepika Kumari became the world’s top-ranked female archer for a time, and won a series of gold medals in the year that followed despite a lackluster performance at the London 2012 Olympics.
Most recently, she had a 2nd place World Cup finish at the 2015 Archery World Cup in Copenhagen, and closed out the year with a bronze medal at the Asian Archery Championships, winning the mixed recurve team event.
Her story is one of guts, grit and inspiration, and now she will head to Rio hoping for her first Olympic medal.
One of India’s earliest weightlifting names, Karnam Malleswari, at only 17, won three silver medals at the Asian Championships of 1992. Qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, Malleswari won bronze, the first time an Indian woman had won a medal at the Olympic Games.
Prior to this, Malleswari won the World Weightlifting Championships in 1995, and set a new world record in the process.
She also had a 9-year reign as India’s national weightlifting champion; two times in the 52kg category, and seven in the 54kg.
One of the most well-known female chess players in the worl, Koneru Humpy’s name was synonomus with the sport in India, almost as closely as that of Grand Master Vishwanathan Anand. She won gold medals at the World Youth Chess Championships on three occasions, the first of which came when she was only 9 years old.
She would go on to, at the age of 15, become the youngest woman in the world to become a chess grandmaster, a record she held for the next 6 years.
The Asian Games gold medal winner is still very active on the competitive chess circuit, most recently winning the individual bronze medal at the Women's World Team Chess Championships in China last year.
Nearly two decades after making her debut, Koneru Humpy is still ranked second in the FIDE World Rankings.
India’s top-ranked shuttler, Saina Nehwal for a short time took the top rank from Spain’s Carolina Marin,who has otherwise dominated the badminton circuit over the past few years. Nehwal made Olympic history for the sport and country when she became the first woman from India to win an Olympic badminton medal.
She was also the first Indian player to win a Super Series event, a feat she accomplished with her Indonesia Open win in 2009.
Formerly coached by Indian badminton icon and All-England Open winner Pullela Gopichand, Nehwal has scaled new heights for Indian athletes, irrespective of gender, but in the process of achieving those goals has given young Indian women and girls a new idol to aspire to.
After having won bronze at the London Olympic Games in 2012, Nehwal is on the cusp of qualifying for Rio 2016 and will hope to improve on what was already quite a strong performance.
She faltered then against nemeses Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan, who will also be part of proceedings in Rio. This time, Nehwal may face a new significant rival in the form of current World No. 1 Ratchanok Intanon, who took top spot from the reigning Carolina Marin after a blazing start to 2016.
But Nehwal, who remains one of the ten best badminton players in the world, has continued to do the country proud, and is an excellent role model for its young women.
Artistic gymnast Dipa Karmakar recently qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 at a qualification event held in the same city earlier this month. The 22-year-old also won gold at the vault later that same day.
That qualification was not just momentous for Karmakar, but for the whole nation – she became the first Indian female gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.
Tripura native Karmakar, who was born with flat feet, was born into a family fond of sports. Led by her weightlifting coach father, Karmakar was referred at nine-years-old to her current coach, BS Nandi, who worked intensely to help the youngster overcome the flat-footedness that had plagued her gymnastics.
Karmakar is one of only five gymnasts in the world to have landed the extremely difficult Produnova vault – and also has the highest score of all of them. She has already set a number of records for the country, winning bronze at the Asian Gymnastics Championships last year and ending up with a strong fifth-place finish at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships – each of those achievements was a national first.
Those achievements came on the heels of a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and her gymnastics career has only gained momentum since.
The first Indian gymnast at the Olympics in 52 years and the first ever woman to qualify, Karmakar will hope to repeat those successes in Rio de Janeiro this August.
Recent Padma Shri awardee Sania Mirza may not have had the best start to her tennis career early on. The Indian ace had only some success in the singles, and eventually retired from the format. In recent years, however, Mirza has come back with immense success in the doubles, which appears to have been her forte. Partnering in early 2015 with tennis legend Martina Hingis, Mirza has completely dominated the women’s doubles circuit, with the pair taking two Grand Slams in 2015 and another in 2016.
After winning the year-opening Brisbane and Apia International tournaments in the lead up to the year’s first Grand Slam, Mirza and Hingis won their first ever Australian Open title as a doubles pair this year.
The two had a dream run until February this year, when they won the inaugural title at the women’s St. Petersburg tournament, which was their 40th straight match win and their fourth title of the season.
Most recently, the two made the finals of the Porsche Tennis Cup, where they eventually lost the title to Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia. Mirza, however, already India’s most successful female singles player, truly hit her stride in 2015 to become an icon for women not only in India, but around the world with her immense form and volleying skills.
The pair have held on to the World No. 1 title since 2015, and having made the finals of the recently concluded Porsche Tennis Cup, look both strong and consistent.
MC Mary Kom
India’s most successful female boxer, MC Mary Kom has been one of the top-ranked boxers in the world in her category, the flyweight. She has five World Amateur Boxing titles, and in 2012 became the only female Indian boxer to qualify for that year's Olympic Games in London.
Mary would end up winning bronze at the Olympics, and is now trying out for the 2016 edition. Following her London victory, she also became the first Indian female boxer to win gold at the Asian Games, winning in Incheon in 2014.
She began her serious boxing training in earnest at the age of 17, and her career quickly began to pick up even more momentum. After picking up gold at the 2009 Indoor Asian Games, she picked up successive medals at the Asian Games in 2010 and 2014, with bronze in Guangzhou and gold in Incheon.
Mary was conferred the Arjuna Award early on in her career, and in 2013, the year after her Olympic bronze, was given India’s third-highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan.
She is currently awaiting trials for the 2016 Rio Olympics, after narrowly missing out at the Asian and Oceanic Boxing Olympic qualifiers in China earlier this month.