PHOTOGRAPHED BY Parhad Goghavala
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Parhad Goghavala
I ’ve always been running—either away from studies and toxic relationships, or towards something like my dream of making it to the Olympics,” says star athlete and youth coach Ayesha Billimoria. She won the first of many national-level gold medals at age 16, but her initial success was thwarted by an overbearing training program that led to mental and physical distress. “It wasn’t just being made to run and exercise too much,” she says, “but [the training] was also demoralising. I was made to feel like I just wasn’t good enough.”
Only a few years later, she suffered debilitating injuries in a car crash; resuming training too quickly thereafter didn’t do her body any favors. “I didn’t realise that being back on my feet without a proper coach, therapy, or rehab was actually doing me bad,” she says. “I was in so much pain.”
He helped me look inwards, and I realised that I was carrying my past baggage into my present,” she says. “Instead, I had to focus on finding happiness within myself.
A bit of serendipity came into play when she happened to meet John Gloster, former physiotherapist for the Indian and Bangladeshi national cricket teams. Gloster suggested she train under Gavin Fernandes, an Indian-origin physiotherapist, and Olympian based out of Australia.
“This was the turning point for me,” Billimoria says of her regular three-month training trips to Australia between 2010 and 2014. Instead of focusing on simply timing and technique, Fernandes taught Billimoria to direct all her energies into increasing her inner strength.
“He helped me look inwards, and I realised that I was carrying my past baggage into my present,” she says. “Instead, I had to focus on finding happiness within myself.”
It’s that last bit that has probably transformed her the most over the past few years. “I thought only running gave me freedom, but what actually freed me was disassociating myself from relationship issues that were clogging my head. I realised that to actually run fast, I had to slow down the pace of my life and focus only on what’s really important to me.”
And what was it that accelerated this quest for self-belief? “I turned to yoga and meditation techniques that Gavin had taught me. It really helped centre me. I also realised that staying in the city for too long can get toxic; there is zero regard for personal space, and it’s just too polluted.” Instead, Billimoria found herself inspired to travel–internationally for races, and within India simply for the pleasure of running on new terrain.
Helping others find joy in running has, in turn, been a great joy for her. In 2016 she started Project Fit girl, helping her share her love for running with others, especially schoolchildren from economically disadvantaged homes. About once a week, Billimoria heads to a school in Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest slum cluster, to teach kids how to keep fit. She also coaches teachers on how to incorporate physical education in the school day. The teaching has “humbled” her, and the monetary remuneration for her coaching has helped her continue pursuing her own dream.
Billimoria gives back in other ways as well. Disturbed by plastics and other waste polluting our seas and oceans, she has emerged as a champion to raise awareness for this cause. One of her favorite ways to spend a Saturday or Sunday in Mumbai is organizing a run or beach clean-up session with children and other runners to make a difference. While she is still trying to get a grip on the extent of damage already done, she feels, “It’s not the time to get emotional or sentimental, it’s the time to act. It’s the time to educate children about their surroundings, about the urgency of helping the environment to rebuild what is truly theirs.”
Every four years, even as the Olympics are marked with fireworks and fame, we tend to overlook the daily grind and dedication that are the foundation of the athletes’ achievements. For the past few years, Billimoria has demonstrated her willpower by training without dedicated coaches or mentors to track her progress and keep her going. Only recently has she been training with celebrity fitness trainer Mustafa Ahmed at his studio, Akro. “I am quite motivated internally, but this is helping me get stronger.He also shares my dreams of making it at the nationals next year to pave the road ahead.”
But what about her age? According to a study at the Institute of Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in France, the peak performance age for athletes in sports like track and field and swimming is 26. Billimoria will be 33 when the next Summer Olympics come, and she’s aiming to run for India in the 800-and1500-meter events. But even though years have passed since she fell just shy of qualifying for the 2012 Olympic team, Billimoria isn’t worried.
“I might be physically older [now],” she says, “but mentally I am far ahead. I’ve earned my medals and respect, and I am not looking for fame. I now feel that ever since I’ve begun taking it a bit easy and stopped pandering to anyone’s demands but my own, I’ve started running faster and without the fear of failure. And I feel that has made me unstoppable.”