For 19 years, Arika Gurung’s story had not been told. No one knew who she was or what she looked like. However, over the last week or so, her name has echoed throughout the nation. On October 7, all her hard work paid off as she became the only Nepali athlete to win a silver medal in karate at the Asian Games this year.
Arika Gurung is no stranger to the world of sports. The recently held 19th Asian Games marked her second international competition, with several domestic competitions also in her portfolio. What is interesting is that Gurung only made her international debut one-and-a-half weeks before the Asian Games in China.
Her debut was quite memorable as she won a gold and a bronze medal at the 10th Shitoryu Karatedo International Championships after which she flew to China to compete in the Asian Games.
She believes that her success and experience there also helped her to bag medals in China.
“We identified our mistake during the competition in Indonesia,” she says, “By rectifying that error, we performed admirably in the Asian Games.”
Win or learn
In the 68-kg weight category, there were a total of eight players including Gurung. Gurung started her bouts directly from the quarter-finals. Winning one fight ensured she would win a bronze medal, winning two fights secured a silver medal, and three victories would have resulted in a gold medal. Understanding this, she defeated Japanese player Yuzuki Sawae in her first fight and Hong Kong’s Yan Kai Ho in the semi-finals.
Her final bout was against Sofya Berultseva from Kazakhstan, someone she had followed religiously. She was up against someone she had thoroughly studied in preparation for the match. However, she soon received a reality check when all the videos she had watched prior to the fight proved to be ineffective. She lost to the world champion and had to settle for a silver medal.
“It was a great experience. I learnt a lot and will use that knowledge in future matches,” says Gurung.
Although her aim was to secure the gold, Gurung said she was disappointed in not being able to achieve this goal.
“It is a bittersweet feeling,” says Gurung who is only the third athlete to win a silver medal for Nepal in the history of the Asian Games.
Winning medals and hopes
This made her the talk of the town. While she anticipated celebrations in her village in Nilakantha municipality-13 in Dhading for her success, she was taken aback by the nationwide reaction to the news of her winning a silver medal.
“I thought I had won one mere fight. But I didn’t know that there would be so much love and support from Nepal. Looking at it now, I am very lucky and happy. It is a proud moment for me.”
But she feels that now the country as well as Nepali society, government and supporters’ hopes and expectations for her have increased. Therefore, she assures that she will improve her game and focus on bettering her game in the coming days.
Her victory in the qualifiers earned her a spot in the Asian Games and introduced her to international competitions. This also led to her first participation in the national team’s closed training sessions.
Under the guidance of coach Kushal Shrestha, she, along with other players, had been diligently preparing for the past nine months.
“She is amazing. In the past nine months, she has not taken one day off. This medal is the reward for the hard work she has put in,” says Shrestha.
Arika Gurung was the tallest athlete in the 68 kg weight category, and her height gave her an undoubted advantage.
“Her arms and legs display remarkable agility, effortlessly moving without hesitation during the game,” says Shrestha.
He also expressed his confidence in her abilities, expecting her to achieve a medal due to her diligence.
“She is an exceptionally high-achieving individual. She has the potential to reach even greater heights, unfortunately, karate was removed from the Olympics,” he says.
Although karate will not be part of the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Shrestha remains optimistic about its inclusion in the Olympics 2028.
“If it is reintroduced later, we want to start preparing her for the Olympics 2028.”
After landing in Kathmandu, when Arika Gurung was busy giving interviews, her mother, Ratna, could be seen enthusiastically peeking from the background.
Holding a bouquet of flowers in hand that Arika Gurung received and witnessing the love her daughter was getting, Ratna was gleaming with happiness. Her father, who is a trekking guide, was not there to welcome her as he was in Phapla and there were no flights to bring him to Kathmandu.
Her parents were often told to try for a son. But Ranta never game attention to that and believed that her two daughters were more than enough.
“I always told Arika that she is as valuable as any son would be,” Ratna says.
That has always given Arika Gurung the belief that she can do anything. Her mother says once Arika sets her mind on something, she has a tendency to see it through and achieve it no matter what. She even picked up hockey at an early age. It is a sport that she has deep affection for even to this day.
The right timing
In the past, Nepal had two separate federations for karate, causing uncertainty among players regarding their participation in international tournaments despite their year-round efforts and dedication.
However, in January, the National Sports Council successfully mediated the conflict and amalgamated the two federations into a single entity. Following the election of the new leadership in March, the disputes within the karate community were effectively resolved.
Former player and coach Shrestha highlighted it was a positive outcome, “Previously, players were often unsure about their participation. But with the new trajectory, players will no longer face such confusion and can solely concentrate on their games. This shift, undoubtedly, contributed to our confidence to win medals.”
In the past, Nepal had secured three bronze medals in karate – Sita Rai in 1994, Samar Bahadur Gole in 1998, and Bimala Tamang in 2014.
Although they had set their sights on securing three or four medals at the Asian Games, they are a bit disappointed about not achieving their target.
Shrestha says insufficient exposure affected their performance against top-ranked opponents.
“The tie sheet also posed some challenge for us, as the players’ first match was scheduled against a top player,” Shrestha says.
Regardless, coach Shrestha says that he views Arika Gurung’s recent success as a promising beginning for the Nepali karate sector. With enhanced exposure and opportunities, Nepali players will yield better results in upcoming tournaments.