Expectant mom Harika ready to chase Olympiad glory - Hindustan Times

Expectant mom Harika ready to chase Olympiad glory

Jun 25, 2022 09:16 PM IST

The Grand Master, world's No 10 ranked woman player, is in her final trimester but is hopeful of withstanding discomforts to guide India at the chess Olympiad starting on July 28.

Grandmaster Harika Dronavalli has been running a scrupulous Google search. The hunt is for athlete examples with major tournament wins during late pregnancy. Luck runs thin. The 31-year-old India chess player describes her own decision to compete in her final trimester as a bit of a gamble—“It’s a bit like shooting in the dark.”

Harika Dronavalli(Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Harika Dronavalli(Hindustan Times)

As things stand, Harika will be part of the Indian women's team on the top board for the Olympiad in Mahabalipuram in July. She’s counting on her next round of scans to not botch plans.

“Mentally, I’m ready. Medically, of course, it’s hard to predict. Once I decided to play the Olympiad, my family has backed me. Of course, my gynaecologist gave me the go-ahead first. I’m keeping myself fit, and I want to be there for my team.”

Harika learnt she was pregnant just ahead of last year’s World Rapid and Blitz championship in Warsaw. She didn’t go through with the tournament or any of the others since. The Olympiad didn’t originally feature in her plans either, primarily since it was to take place in Moscow. It was shifted to Chennai after Russia was stripped of its hosting rights following its Ukraine invasion. The fresh venue of her favourite tournament on the chess calendar is just an hour’s flight away and India as its first-time host was sufficient motivation to reconsider.

She sat down with her gynaecologist to check her probability of participation in the Olympiad and September’s Asian Games. Chess was to make a comeback in the continental event and it was almost certain she wouldn’t be able to make it. When news of its postponement to next year broke, Harika was somewhat relieved.

While she’s going through the whole gamut of final trimester-associated discomforts—primarily feet swelling and fatigue, in her head, she says, her world is yet to be upturned. “To be frank, I really can’t feel it yet. I’ve read about it in books, the whole shift that pregnancy and motherhood bring about. Perhaps that’ll happen when I hold my baby for the first time. Of course, I’m more cautious now because I know there’s one more life I'm responsible for, but my priorities haven’t changed a whole lot. I’ve spent more than 20 years playing chess, it’s hard to just drop that overnight.”

Harika will be travelling to Mahabalipuram with her husband and grandmother and the All India Chess Federation plans to have an ambulance on standby for her at the hotel.

Expectant mothers being part of major competitions late into their pregnancy isn’t without precedent. The 2012 Olympic Games featured an eight-month pregnant Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohammad Taibi. Alysia Montano ran the 800m at the 2014 US track and field championships while eight months pregnant and American seven-time Olympic medallist Dana Vollmer swam the 50m freestyle at a 2017 national meet while six months into her pregnancy with her second child. They may not have finished among the medals, but their act of turning up at competitions with visibly pregnant bellies, and crushing fatigue, can be seen as quiet barrier-breakers for women everywhere.

It's the victories though that lodge themselves in our heads rightaway. Female athletes winning big in the early stages of pregnancy aren’t exactly rare. Harika shares her favourite—former world No 1 Serena Williams, who discovered she’s pregnant days before the 2017 Australian Open. She finished with her seventh Grand Slam win. “Serena is inspiring…To have done what she did in her eighth week…Of course there are others as well. We somehow tend to remember the winners. I hope I can be one too. Every female athlete who goes through pregnancy and motherhood during their careers have different paths, journeys and choices.”

Closer home, Harika's senior in the team, Koneru Humpy, took a two-year hiatus from competitions through pregnancy and early motherhood after developing pre-natal complications in her second trimester. She returned to win the World Rapid Championship in 2019.

While she’s looking up inspiring accounts, a part of Harika wonders how much her current condition might impact her teammates at the Olympiad. India’s two female GMs—Humpy and Harika—are the strongest members of the women’s side, typically tasked with the heavy lifting at team events. At last year’s World Team Championships—India won a historic silver—Harika wound up playing 11 games in seven days. It was a tournament where Humpy was missing. Given Harika’s seeming physical limitations at this point, it might call for tweaks in strategy.

“It’s quite a unique situation,” offers GM Pravin Thipsay, who’s heading the Indian delegation for the tournament. “I think we’ll have to form game strategy on a per day basis, depending on how Harika is feeling each morning. It can’t be easy on her body. We must be judicious in how we use her so she gets enough rest and can be fielded for key matches.”

Typically, Harika is the most psyched member ahead of team events. It’s accompanied by pangs of stress. This time though, medical wisdom suggests she go easy on herself. She has three don'ts on her mental sticky notes: don't stress, don't obsess about a medal and don't sit for long hours. To address the latter, she plans to walk around during her opponent’s time in the games.

“I think mentally others in the team will be a lot more prepared to play a greater number of games this time,” she says. “The Olympiad is not something I just want to tick off a list. The team matters to me and I'm hoping to be useful. I just want to last the entire tournament, give it my all and not go into labour before it's over.”

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