The Indian Special Olympics delegation waits outside of New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport on the evening on March 13 -- and emotions are high. In a few hours the members will board a plane that will carry them more than 4,000 miles to Austria for the Special Olympics World Winter Games. Flying on a plane, traveling abroad, being away from family is a first for nearly all of them. Many weep as they are hugged by parents who are just as puffy eyed. Shikha Rani, though, beams. When curious travelers wave at this group of athletes, she waves back. "Aren't you scared?" someone asks the Special Olympics figure skater.
Just a few hours earlier, there were also plenty of jittery skaters at the Iskate skating rink, which is on the sixth floor of a mall in the booming New Delhi suburb of Gurugram. The rink is a novelty, the only indoor facility in India. For middle-class Indians who are spending their Holi holiday evening here, the rink promises an exotic, albeit costly, international experience.
The experience can also be an intensely humiliating one. As tourists lace up their heavy training skates and attempt to balance on top of a blade, it's as though they are learning to walk for the first time. There are no expectations of grace and beauty, like the ones promised on the posters outside the rink. They seek safety and cling on to the side walls and then lurch forward zombie like. Arms flail and legs wobble, falls ensue. Their one hour can't end soon enough. This slippery, unfamiliar terrain isn't for them.
But it is for Shikha. This is where she feels at home. She and the Indian Special Olympics ice skating team had just finished their final training session here. The session was a dress rehearsal for them, too. A couple of male athletes in pairs figure skating wear shiny white boots; the two speedskaters don skin-tight black suits. Shikha too is wearing her costume: a blue fitted outfit with a red tutu and a satin rosette of the same color pinned to her hair. A coach has even convinced her to dab on some lipstick.
Shikha laces her gray boots and strides toward the ice. Just before she steps on it, she bends down and reaches out to the frozen ground with her right arm then touches her head and chest. She is seeking the playing fields' blessings before she begins her routine. The gesture is a traditional one, performed by athletes across all sports in India. But there is nothing traditional about what Shikha Rani is doing. This waifish 5-foot-1 girl with misshapen hands, feet and face, who had been considered inadequate her entire life, is doing what people with her disabilities aren't expected to do.
"Who would have believed it? That Shikha was going to represent the country in Austria?" said Paramjit Singh, Shikha's father, a few days before Shikha's departure. He certainly didn't. Not 23 years ago, on the day Shikha was born in Deoli.
Deoli is typical of other villages that dot the hilly slopes of the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The village is surrounded by fields of wheat and mustard. People have built houses the same way for centuries with mud floors and walls and tiled slate roofs. It takes two hours by bus to travel to the nearest large town, Una. Despite its picturesque charm, everyone here wants to leave for better prospects. The best job to hope for is in the Army. Singh wanted to enlist, just as his two older brothers had. He was denied because of a heart murmur.
A young Singh wanted more for his children. When his first two children were born, he would go to the whitewashed Shiva temple and offer prayers and a customary saffron cloth. He did the same for Shikha, his third daughter. When she was born, her head was swollen with fluid, and her fingers and toes were fused together. "We didn't even know whether she would live or die," said Suman, Shikha's mother. "She wasn't even able to feed. I had to soak a piece of cotton in milk and squeeze the drops into her mouth."
The people in the village told Singh that his family had been cursed. "People told me not to waste our lives caring for her -- and that it was best to suffocate her. Another time a group came to our door and said they would take her and raise her. But they wanted to raise her as a beggar," Suman said.
Shikha is one of an estimated 32 million people with intellectual disabilities in India. There are not nearly enough facilities to help them. The concept of special needs education was virtually unknown in India when Shikha was born -- and certainly not available to anyone in Deoli. "My wife and I had studied only until class ten. We didn't know whether there was a cure or even what was wrong with her," Singh said.
Back then there was no medical facility at their village, so Singh would have to take two buses over bumpy hill roads to get to the district hospital in Una. From there he was sent to a hospital in Chandigarh, another four hours away. "Doctors there told me to take her back and that her condition would go away by itself," he said. There was no other way. Shikha had two older sisters --- Sharmila and Meeta -- and a brother, Vishal, would soon to be on the way. Her father had others to provide for. He couldn't afford to get another opinion. In fact, Shikha's condition still has not been diagnosed.
In desperation for answers, Shikha's parents turned to the village astrologer. He insisted the planets were horribly aligned. "He told that our daughter would die by the time she turned 8," Suman said. So confident in the child's demise, he even added a generous guarantee. "He said if she lived past 8, she would achieve great things -- and even be the same level as the prime minister."
The prediction seemed far-fetched back then, but Suman still held out hope -- even though there wasn't much. Shikha would keep to herself and lay silently in a corner while the other children played. The children avoided her. But perhaps, Shikha always wanted to make her way to the unknown, the world outside of her home. When asked about her earliest memory, Shikha remembers the time she did just that. It's a story the family recounts now as if to explain why she is doing the extraordinary things she is doing as a 23-year-old.
Shikha's parents had left to take Shikha's younger brother to the doctor, and after they left, the 4-year-old crawled out of the house to find them. She headed toward the fields that the family farmed for mustard and wheat. She lay there under the stars until her parents found her several hours later. No one recalls Shikha being afraid.
As time went on, Shikha's learning disabilities became more and more apparent. There had to be more for her, as Paramjit had wished so long for all of his children. She eventually got her chance, when her father learned of a home for special needs children. A few months after Shikha turned 6 years old, she was admitted to the Prem Ashram School in Una run by the Sisters of Charity. She would return home for only two months each year. He knew the school would provide far better care than his family could but the transition was not smooth.
"She was terrified at being away from her family," said Sister Rosamma, the girl's caretaker. "She was howling and crying in a corner." Shikha only calmed down after the nun held her in her lap and played a Bollywood song from the 1992 film "Roja." The sisters encouraged Shikha to be independent, and she liked that. They encouraged her to dance and play -- and she liked that even more.
But it was sports that really captured her attention, and her teacher Ravi Kumar first introduced her to them. Kumar had never worked with special needs children, and on his first day at Prem Ashram, he remembers being overwhelmed. "The first time I met her, she had a lot of behavioral problems. She fought all the time with the other children," he said.
Sports seemed to be a way to get through to her. So Kumar taught her. First they tried bocce ball. Then running. But it was roller skating that really resonated with her. In the school's indoor hall -- with a mural of Jesus Christ and a portrait of Baba Sahib Singh Bedi, whose descendants gifted the land where the school was built, looking on -- Shikha laced up a pair of quad skates for the first time. "I remember it was her idea to begin roller skating. She used to watch the other children skate, and one day, she decided to do it herself," Kumar said.
"Sometimes she would go to the room herself, open the cupboard and pick out a pair of skates and practice. She would get up in the morning and do laps around the compound."
Indeed not long after Shikha turned 8 years old -- the birthday that her parents had been told with great certainty she wouldn't reach -- she won the first of many roller-skating competitions for children with disabilities. She would travel across her state and Himachal and even across the country to Hyderabad. These were places no one in her family had ever been to. In one competition in 2009, Shikha would be presented a check for 700 rupees, about $10, by the WWE wrestler Great Khali.
Suman recalls asking her daughter if she had asked for the money. " 'No, I won it! It belongs to me,' " Suman recalled her daughter saying. "All I had heard until then was how my daughter was going only to be a burden. It made me so proud when she could open a bank account in her name."
Despite her success on the rink, Shikha was very aware that her disabilities were visible to others. "People, and especially children, stared at her all the time," Sister Rosamma said. "I would try and make her understand that she couldn't stop that and that she needed to ignore them, but of course, it isn't easy for anyone to accept -- and it is harder for a young woman."
Indeed Shikha withdrew from attention -- just as she always had. When she went home to Deoli, she wouldn't interact with neighbors. And when she did go out, she would cross her arms to hide her hands.
There was a dream though. Kumar believed Shikha could go for the Special Olympics World Games, a global competition held every two years, alternating between summer and winter. India has sent a team to the World Games since 2002. A few athletes from Prem Ashram had participated, too. Shikha's schoolmate Prabha Kumari was one of them. She had competed as a roller skater at the summer World Games in Athens in 2011, when Shika was 17 years old, winning two gold and a bronze. "When Prabha returned, Shikha wanted to know everything about what she had done," Sister Rosamma said. "She wanted to see what color of medals she had won. What it was like travelling on a plane. She wanted to do these things herself. She said she wanted a medal for herself."
In 2014, three years after Shikha's friend returned home from Athens, Indian Special Olympics noticed that the country wasn't making use of all the allotted Olympic quotas at the Winter Games. It was decided that India would send more ice skaters from across India.
With her roller skating experience, Shikha was asked to come to New Delhi with Kumar in the summer of 2014 and train for a week at the Iskate rink. Just like most beginners, on her first attempt she fell, but she persevered. "What struck me about her was that she didn't give up," said Chandrabhan Kumar, a trainer at the Iskate rink. "She kept at it 'til she understood how to skate."
None of this was easy for Shikha. She faced the same difficulties as she had when she roller skated for the first time. With no toes, she struggled with balance and with generating power when she pushed off. But she adapted by twisting her foot away from her body and using the flat side of her foot to push off the ground. And because her right foot curved, it was difficult to find a boot that would fit -- and be comfortable. "Her feet would probably be a size five. But we have to put her in a size seven because that's the only size wide enough for her foot. And even they are too tight for her," Chandrabhan said.
When on the ice, Shikha would retreat to a corner to skate. She had always shied away from people -- and now she was being asked to be the center of attention. "You need to be in the middle of the rink so people can see you," Chandrabhan would often yell across the ice.
By this time, Shikha was no longer studying at Prem Ashram. She was 20 years, beyond what the school could retain. She had returned home, settling into a routine. She had been taught the basics of how to lead as independent a life as possible. Every day she got up early and prepared tea for the family. She swept the house, chopped fodder and fed the tiny calf, Veera.
Away from her school friends -- people she could relate to -- and familiar surroundings at Prem Ashram, Shikha once again isolated herself in the walls she had created in her mind. "I don't have friends," she said simply.
When she wasn't doing her chores, she would sit quietly in a room. "She will first make sure no one is watching her and then she will do things she was taught at school," said Sharmila, her oldest sister. Sometimes, Shikha, her sister says, would read. Other times she will pick up books and copy down sentences she liked. In one of the books, she had written three words: "I like playing."
It was rare to get a chance. Some days Sharmila took Shikha with her on the two-hour journey by bus to Prem Ashram where she would strap on her roller skates. Ice skating would come far more infrequently. After the training camp in 2014, she had only three more weeks of practice on the ice rink spaced over three years. While the Indian Special Olympics Association paid for those training camps, it was impossible to fund practice privately. Not when an hour on the ice cost about a tenth of her father's monthly income. "Each time she returns I worry whether she remembers how to skate. And each time after a few minutes she shows me she does," Chandrabhan said.
The stakes were always high when Shikha came to Delhi -- and none higher than at the 2016 camp. There would be a national championship conducted on the last couple of days, and that would determine whether Shikha would qualify for the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Shikha's perseverance paid off: She won the championship, and a couple of months later, she found out she was going to Austria. "She was so excited to be going," Sister Rosamma said. "She told us that she would be going on an airplane. That was what she was really looking forward to."
The last few weeks have been exciting for Shikha and her family. Her name has appeared in local papers, and her father has made sure people in Deoli know about it. "The same people who used to make fun of me in the past were now reading about her in the newspapers. I stick my chest out when I walk now," he said.
But news has spread beyond Deoli. "In the past it was just our family who would be hoping she would do well -- now the country is hoping. No one in my village has achieved anything like she has," Singh said. This isn't just a father's embellishment. On March 10, Shikha was chosen to help inaugurate a sendoff ceremony for the Indian Special Olympics. In a speech there, the Indian sports minister announced that medal-winning athletes would be felicitated by the country's prime minister.
Shikha's mother takes this as proof that the astrologer was right in his prediction more than 20 years ago. But in her heart, she fears for her daughter. "I am scared for Shikha. What will happen to her after I am gone? These are things that worry a mother," she said.
It's uncertain whether Shikha will get a chance to return to the ice once she returns from Graz. The Indian Special Olympics has a policy barring athletes who have competed in the World Games from competing again. This means Shikha will not be called to any camps in the future, and it's unlikely she will be able to fund the trips to Delhi.
But for now, as Shikha sits at the airport with her Special Olympics team, none of this matters. Over the past week, her anticipation of this moment has steadily grown. "It is my first time on a plane," she says. She fiddles with the Special Olympics identification card that's tied with a ribbon around her neck. She suddenly wonders about the prospect of meeting new people. "They will speak in English, won't they?"
At the departures terminals, Shikha is once again drawing attention. She doesn't mind. They stare at her jersey, the one that has India written on the back. She waves cheerfully back at them. And then someone asks her if she is scared.
"I'm not scared. Not at all," she says.