Bhavani TN hadn’t heard of a place called Manali in India till 2013. Skiing, too, was beyond her comprehension.
“I was introduced to snow only after watching Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (a 2013 Bollywood blockbuster starring Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone),” said 27-year-old Bhavani from Kodagu in Karnataka.
Nine years after the film, Bhavani became the first Indian woman to win an international medal in cross-country skiing in December 2022. She won a silver at the Raiffeisen Langlauf Cup in Dobbiaco, Italy.
Bhavani was nervous when she left the green mountainous terrain of Kodagu to Dobdiaco, the gateway to the romantically wild Val di Landro in northern Italy bordering Austria, to participate in the competition.
“I was very nervous due to the completely different atmosphere. But my coach (Gianluca Furlanis from Italy) advised me to take it like a training session, improve the timing, and not overthink it. I just thought I could do it,” Bhavani recollected. She completed the 5-km event in 18 minutes and three seconds.
“After finishing, I didn’t know that I won a medal as the timing calculation takes a while. So, I went for lunch,” she recalled.
Bhavani is now gearing up for her debut Nordic World Ski Championships — 5-km and 10-km cross-country events — scheduled from 21 February to 5 March in Planica, Slovenia.
A total of 21 athletes, including two women, have represented India in the Winter Olympics since they began in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria. Kashmir’s Arif Khan was the latest to represent India in Beijing last year.
Six-time Indian Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan, who helped Bhavani train in Italy, called her a young promising athlete. “Even the coaches there were impressed by her performance. To compete in Winter Olympics, it is compulsory for her to play in World Championships. So she has ticked the first box right,” he told South First.
South First spoke to the langlaufer about her journey so far, how she took up mountaineering and ended up as a skier, and her goals.
Many firsts for the South Indian ‘snow eagle’
Bhavani has been a regular in the national circuit for the past three years. The event usually takes place between December and March.
She bagged two bronze medals in the 5-km and 10-km Nordic skiing categories while representing Karnataka at the inaugural Khelo India winter games at Gulmarg in 2020. This was followed by a gold and a bronze the next year.
“I was happy to be the first skier from South India to win medals in winter sports,” Bhavani, who has named herself “snow eagle” on social media, said.
The Covid-19 pandemic affected her training, which she continued at home.
She said her parents initially raised questions about her endurance, stamina, and speed.
“As skiing is an endurance sport, I used to run long distances. When my timing started getting better, my mom thought I was cheating. So my dad used to drop me in his car some 10-12 kilometres away and my mom noted my timing,” reminisced Bhavani, who is fond of a Coorgi pork dish locally known as pandi curry.
The year 2022 turned out to be a grand one for the Kodagu athlete. She was the first from South India to secure not just one but five podium finishes — a gold and four silvers — across two major national-level championships in seven days.
First, she won two silvers (95 km and 10 km) in the National Winter Biathlon Championship, a combined cross-country skiing and rifle shooting competition.
Then she followed it up with a gold and two silvers at the National Cross Country Skiing Championships, the oldest national-level competition for skiing in India.
But Bhavani did not rest on her laurels. She finished with a silver (1.5 km) and a bronze (5 km) at the All India Open Ski and Snowboard Championships next month at Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh. Her tally is now seven national medals in just two months.
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A graduate in BCA from St Agnes College in Mangaluru, Bhavani was not fascinated by the IT sector.
An Indian Army aspirant, she picked up mountaineering through a 2014 National Cadet Corps (NCC) camp in Manali and was a cadet till 2016, attending several camps.
During her last grade-A certificate course at the prominent Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling, Bhavani was offered the job as a guest instructor in 2017.
“People used to tell me I was too thin and, being a South Indian, not used to mountains. But I kept pushing myself,” said Bhavani, who wants to win India’s first Winter Olympics medal in the 2026 Milan Cortina games scheduled in Italy,
Over the years, she climbed the highest European peak, Mt Elbrus (5,642 m) in Russia and Mt Ruapehu (2,797 m) in New Zealand.
Speaking to South First, Skiing and Snowboard India (SSI) General Secretary Roop Chand Negi noted that Bhavani was very dedicated.
“Coming from a non-skiing region, she has shown tremendous development. And I am confident that she will participate in Olympics 2026,” he said.
Ice breaking with skiing
It was during her time at the HMI that the adventure enthusiast got into skiing. And that too was because of a movie.
“I came across this movie called Eddie the Eagle (on British Ski-jumper and record holder Michael David Edwards). I had tried skiing before, but only for fun. But after watching the movie, I thought of pursuing a proper course to learn it. I was also preparing for army and SSB entrance examinations,” Bhavani explained.
In 2018, she joined the renowned Kashmir-based Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports (JIM & WS) for basics. Then for advanced training, she got enrolled in the Indian Institute of Skiing & Mountaineering (IISM).
“It was then I came across an instructor course in New Zealand. Having an instructor certificate helps you work overseas. So it was also on my mind as I was continuously getting merit out in SSBs,” said Bhavani, who claims to be the first Indian woman to be certified as an international skiing instructor, which she achieved in 2019 at the New Zealand Snowsports Instructors Alliance (NZSIA).
The course even landed her a job as an alpine ski instructor at a private institute in South Korea. “Unfortunately, the joining date clashed with my SSB engagement. So I could not go,” she added.
‘Winter sports need special criteria’
Bhavani was first lauded in 2015 by the then Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah.
In 2022, she was awarded as a youth icon at the Madikeri Dasara.
She was also felicitated with ₹2 lakh by Karnataka Sports Minister Narayana Gowda and Labour Minister Shivaram Hebbar.
“That amount came after several media persons and others vouched for me on social media. When I earlier requested the state government, they said that winter sports were not a part of their scheme,” Bhavani pointed out, adding that the Karnataka government runs many annual schemes to support athletes financially.
To avail the best training facilities, she trains in Norway, Italy, Iceland and other European nations during the season.
“If I train for the whole season (four-five months), it would cost me ₹50-60 lakh, including equipment, travel and accommodation. But I and my parents can’t afford that much. So, I come here for only a month or so. Even that costs around ₹10 lakh,” Bhavani explained from her camp in Italy.
Comparing herself with European skiers, she said, “They have around 40-50 pairs of skis. You need different gear for different conditions and tracks.”
Both Keshavan and Negi noted that international athletes — irrespective of winter or summer sports — need funding and facilities.
“Winter sports need special criteria. There is no National Sports Policy (NSP) for them right now, which is extremely strange. But the Sports Ministry has discussions going to have separate provisions for winter sports,” said Keshavan, a member of the Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) Athletes Commission adopted, in November last year.
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