As a 9-year-old growing up in the coastal city of Mangaluru, Karnataka, Tanvi Jagadish would spend her holidays with her grandparents in nearby Mulki.
Her late grandfather used to travel extensively, and would tell Tanvi stories of what he saw. He had noticed women paddleboarders on one such trip to Maldives and Fiji. He came back home and told Tanvi to try paddling and surfing at the Mantra Surf Club in Mulki, a two-minute walk from their house. "I did not know how to swim and my mom was against the idea of swimming or surfing. So initially, I used to paddle and surf without telling my parents," Tanvi says, reflecting on the summer of 2009.
But she knew that she could not keep her newfound love for the sea a secret. "I could not hide my tanned face after a point so I opened up to my parents about discovering surfing. My mother was scared of the ocean and it took a long time to convince her that this is what I wanted to do with my life," she tells TNM.
Her mother eventually came around to Tanvi going to the beach, but was still apprehensive of her taking up the sport professionally. "They thought that my focus should be on education. My mom used to worry about my appearance – I was tanned and had flyaway hair due to all the surfing. She feared I would get hurt. But I saw no choice. I had found the first love of my life," says Tanvi.
Nine years on, at only 18, Tanvi has scaled new heights in a sport embraced by few people in the country.
She has won the national stand-up paddleboarding competition six times and was part of the first Indian team to participate in an international paddleboarding contest. She is also the first professional female paddleboarder in the country. "My mother is proud of my achievements now. It astonishes her that I paddle kilometres into the sea," says Tanvi.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) or paddling is different from traditional surfing though the basic principle remains the same. In paddling, you stand on a broad surfboard and propel yourself using a paddle as opposed to traditional surfing in which you sit until a wave comes along.
After Tanvi discovered surfing and paddleboarding, she decided to dedicate her time to learning nuances of the sport. She credits her success to her first coach Shamanth Kumar, a surfing instructor at the Mantra Surf School.
Tanvi representing India at the stand-up paddleboarding race in Fiji, 2016 || Photograph by Surfing Federation of India
Shamanth put her through an arduous training schedule that saw her wake up at 3:30 am every day. "I get into the water after yoga and meditation. I also run on the beach, do long-distance paddling in the sea and I am in the water few hours every morning and evening. I lose track of time when I am in the water so I can't tell you exactly how long," says Tanvi.
Ever since she started paddleboarding, Tanvi hoped to represent her country internationally and began taking part in national level competitions. It was after she won her fifth national competition that she got her first taste of international competition when she lined up at the starting line of the 2016 World Stand-Up Paddle and Paddleboard Championship, an 18-kilometer distance race in Fiji. Tanvi made history by being a part of the first Indian team to take part in an international SUP event.
Tanvi at the starting line of the stand-up paddleboarding race in Fiji, 2016 || Photograph by Surfing Federation of India
It did not matter to her that she finished 16th among 19 athletes. It mattered that she had finished the race after being in the water for three hours. Tanvi's performance in Fiji opened new doors to new opportunities her. She competed in the 2017 Carolina Cup in USA and finished third in the seven-mile race. She also landed a sponsorship with Red Bull and took part in another World Championship in Denmark later in the year.
In spite of her relative success, Tanvi hopes that the sport catches on and more people in the country take up surfing and paddleboarding professionally. In India, surfing is still restricted to few pockets of the vast coastline and it is only recently that people have taken it up as a professional sport, she observes.
Tanvi alongisde Sekar Patchai at Fiji, 2016 || Photograph by Surfing Federation of India
"The lack of funding is a problem. Being an individual athlete, I really wish the government would help. I spend a lot of time focusing on sponsorship which I could utilize for training. It would be good if we did not have to think about sponsorship because we are playing for the country," she says.
Tanvi also wants to help other girls take up the sport and has begun teaching surfing and paddleboarding at the Mantra Surf Club to anyone who wishes to learn. "In India, the sport is still dominated by men. I want to show that girls belong in the sea," she says resolutely.
Tanvi finished 16th out of 19 athletes at the international race in Fiji || Photograph by Surfing Federation of India
She is doing this even as she gears up to represent India in the Singapore Ocean Cup on November 17 and 18, and in the Paris SUP Crossing on December 8 and 9. "A winter paddling event in Paris means the water will be very cold and there might be snowfall," she says, both excited and fearful. "But when you are in the sea, it is simply you on your surfboard and you paddle as hard as you can," she says.