<
>

Nishchay Luthra skating on thin ice towards Winter Games

Spinning at dizzying speeds and landing at triple and quadruple jumps, mornings are about intense sessions for figure skaters at Panthers Ice Den in Florida. For Nishchay Luthra, it's when he earns his free ice time.

Taking wobbly beginners on skates through their first lessons in the sport, the 18-year-old figure skater from Delhi watches his peers from a distance stroke around the rink, do forward and backward crossovers and then move on to lunges. "I stare at the others go about their practice routines every morning. It's the time when the best skaters train. I can't afford to join them and lose out on the free ice time I'd get in exchange for coaching newcomers," Nishchay tells ESPN from Florida at the end of 14 hours at the rink.

The Winter Games are less than a year away and Nishchay knows that even to qualify, he has a long way to go.

Dabbling in cricket, athletics and basketball early on, Nishchay was teased by school mates in Delhi for his poor skating skills. It led to the urge of wanting to learn the sport and beating them at it. At the age of 10 he began learning the basics of roller skating under coach Vasudev Tandi, who then helped him move to ice-skating. YouTube videos also came to his assistance.

His first experience of skating on ice at the National Ice Skating championship in Shimla five years ago was also to bring him his maiden medal, gold, in the sport. The following year he again won gold in the singles and pairs events. Though he won a bronze at the World Development Trophy in 2014, lack of training infrastructure in the country was hurting his progress and he moved to America to plug the gaps. Funds soon ran dry and he had to return to India in six months.

"Most of the other skaters get their costumes tailored by professionals. I get mine done at a run-down local shop. When you're from India, you know your way around jugaad."

Moving back to Florida in December last year, Nishchay fears he's again hurtling towards a similar predicament. Mother Neelam Kanta is a head constable with the Delhi Police and the family is already reeling under the crushing weight of multiple loans taken for Nishchay's overseas training, even putting their home on mortgage.

A half an hour session with an instructor at the Coral Springs practice facility roughly costs $100 and while most of the other skaters opt for multiple such sessions through the day, 30 minutes with Swedish Olympian Adrian Schultheiss is the full extent of what Nishchay, who moved to America for the first time two years ago, can afford. "I try to make the most of every minute that I have with the coach and learn as much I can. I know that's all the time I have."

Conscious of the Indian's talent and financial constraints, coach Adrian, though, often throws in an extra half hour of unpaid lessons.

For ice time alone, Nishchay has to shell out $1000 each month and skater boots can cost anywhere between $1000-2000. "Most of the other skaters get their costumes tailored by professionals. I get mine done at a run-down local shop. When you're from India, you know your way around jugaad (shortcuts)," he laughs.

Over the past couple of weeks though, the teen has found his way into feverish campaigns for support and Twitter handles of celebrities. He hopes none of it is fleeting or soon forgotten.

"It feels great to know that people are standing by me. But my struggle to pursue this sport, to train every day," he pauses to gather his thoughts, "very few know about it."

Sharing accommodation with a truck driver and his family for $500 a month, Nishchay cooks his own meals and cycles three miles every day to the training centre. Training beginners for the first three hours in exchange for few hours on the rink, he sneaks in a half an hour session with coach Adrian and is left to practice by himself for the remaining 10-odd hours. Returning home drained of the last shred of energy, a dull ache spreading through his muscles and sinews, he often falls asleep hungry. "I wish my mother was here so I wouldn't have to worry about cooking. It gets very lonely here."

Two years ago, the central government briefly extended assistance to Nishchay. His pleas for help later were met with the staid response of 'medal first, money later'. "Athletes need funds during training, not after they've won a medal," he says. "There's no point rushing to an athlete's side after he's won an Olympic medal. You were never with him in the journey to it."

An India-based crowdfunding platform called Milaap has also stepped in to raise funds for the figure skater and its CEO Mayukh Choudhary is hopeful of the drive picking pace. "Despite being a lesser known sport in India, the response has been encouraging so far. We're looking to raise enough funds over the next fortnight that will sustain his training for at least the rest of the year."

"People sometimes ask me why I'm dressed like a girl. I've never figured why it should be a problem for others if the athlete is comfortable. Try doing an axel jump in baggy pants and people would figure why we wear tight clothing."

Right now, coach-assisted training, Nishchay says, is what he needs. "Most skaters start out young, like when they're four or six. I've only had professional training for the past two years and for me to catch up on the time and lessons I've missed I have to train more than compete. Since I practice on my own most of the time, it's just going over what I already know and not really learning anything new." The ISU Junior Grand Prix of figure skating in Brisbane, a month from now is the nearest competition he's aiming for.

Beyond the travails of training without sufficient funds there's also the insinuation about one's sexuality, belonging to an effeminate discipline, to deal with. Men in body-hugging, sparkly, rhinestone-studded costumes with flashy hair, spinning and twirling on ice is often viewed as a threat to heterosexual masculinity and figure skating is conveniently typecast as a 'softer' sport.

"People sometimes ask me why I'm dressed like a girl. It's a graceful sport and demands one to be turned out in a particular manner. I've never figured why it should be a problem for others if the athlete is comfortable. Try doing an axel jump in baggy pants and people would figure why we wear tight clothing."

Nishchay confesses he once did. It didn't end too well. In fact, he picked up the axel jump - a forward takeoff, making one and a half revolutions in the air and landing on the other foot on a back outside edge, which often takes years for skaters to master, fairly quickly. "My coaches were surprised. I started doing the double (2.5 revolutions) axels within six months of training. It may not seem so, but figure skating is one of the toughest sports. You have to have the skills of a gymnast, the poise of a dancer and the balance of a speed skater."

The odds stacked up against him, Nishchay knows his family back in Delhi waits for his calls expectantly, for news that he's within touching distance of his dreams.

"Sometimes I feel angry that I have to train alone with a broken boot nose and have bland, tasteless food every day. But this is the path I've chosen and I don't want to give up," he says. "Maybe help will come my way soon."