Sudha and Balaji Babu's son Dhanush was only three when he wanted to learn how to skate. But the problem was that he was left-handed, meaning his left leg was more prominent. "The coaches had difficulty training him because in competitions, the right leg has to be in the front," says Sudha. So in a bid to realise Dhanush's dream, his parents started an entire roller-skating academy.
The Bengaluru-based couple have been sportspersons themselves - Balaji is a cricketer and Sudha a runner. Both of them competed at the state-level in Karnataka during their college days. So they began by training their son Dhanush in front of Vidhan Soudha on the empty roads at 5.30am in 1999. Slowly, more people started sending their children to them, finally leading them to establish City Skaters academy in 2004.
Now, both 21-year-old Dhanush and his sister 17-year-old Mouna compete nationally and internationally in roller-skating. "We know that education is important for children. But we don't expect our kids to get 98%. If they get 50-70% also, that's also enough for us," says Sudha.
Unfortunately, however, this is not the case for most parents. Sudha, who trains children from 3.5 to 5 years of age in Malleswaram says that about 70-75% of the parents enrol children in the academy viewing roller-skating as a recreational activity. The dropout rates are higher with her than her husband who trains older children up to 16 years of age competitively at Mahalakshmi Layout.
Among the top reasons children drop out from the academy are working parents not having the time to take them for practice and academic pressure. "Sometimes school teachers tell parents that because your child is spending time in these classes, he/she is not performing well. And another assumption parents have is that because they are not from a sports background, they don't believe their children will do well either," says Sudha.
However, Sudha also says that sometimes parents can be convinced by making them aware of the benefits of pursuing sports competitively and professionally. "If students get cash rewards and sports quota seats, that is incentive for parents, especially those who come from middle-class families because roller-skating is an expensive sport," she says, adding that that for a professional skater, the equipment can cost Rs 1.5-2 lakh.
But Sudha says there's a ray of hope. "Roller-skating has been picking up in the last 4-5 years in India. CBSE, Kendriya Vidyalayas have both introduced it at a competitive level and we are also trying to push it at the university level," she says.
But the situation in India has a long way to go to come up to international standards. Like much of the media discourse after the Rio Olympics, Sudha points to the lack of infrastructure and facilities for aspiring sportspersons. On top of this is the persisting mentality of parents wanting their children to become engineers and doctors. "The government needs to take cognizance of the immense talent in the country and give it a real chance to flower," Sudha insists.
Sudha is 48 and her husband 49 and they currently train about 50-60 skaters each. "We plan to do this for as long as can. Our children already help out with training the younger ones. They say they will carry our legacy forward," she says happily.