The crowd screamed “Nima! Nima! Nima!” The cameras with long lens clicked away and captured her every move. The lights blinded her. Her teammates and journalists pulled her from every direction. It felt like she was in a dream. But she was in a stadium in Shillong, India. Everybody asked her just one question—“Nima, how do you feel wining this title?”

Meanwhile, back home, her neighbors and schoolmates gathered outside the grocery shop her mother ran in Tikathali, Lalitpur. They distributed sweets to celebrate her victory. She had done the entire nation proud, they said.

The next day, on February 9, 2016, Nima’s success became headline news in the Nepali media. The 16-year-old was the first Nepali to win a gold medal at the South Asian Games 2016 (SAG), and the youngest to win a gold for Nepal.

Nima misses the life before she was famous. Nabin Bibhas

Nima became a celebrity overnight.

“Now I feel as if somebody is watching me all the time,” says Nima. “I want to laugh and scream with my friends in the streets. But I can’t. I have to be proper, and I’m scared that I’ll do something wrong.”

Nima’s final game concluded in two rounds. The first was a bare hand round, which she won. The next round included swordplay. Nima won that too. At that moment her father Mansur Gharti was standing in a petrol queue in Lagankhel; the country was suffering from a severe fuel shortage due to the blockade. A police officer who was his neighbor told him that Nima had won the title.

“It’s hard to express how happy the news made me,” her father said. “I’d just returned from a temple to stand in the petrol queue. I went back to the temple to thank God.”

Nima belongs to the Magar community, the largest indigenous group of Nepal. She was born in Madichaur village in Rolpa, a hotbed of the Maoist movement. Her family moved to Kathmandu when she was three. The conflict was at its peak then and the situation in the village was tense. At the time her father was working in a factory in Singapore.

Nima and her family have lived in Tikathali for the past 13 years. Her mother Puna, 48, runs a small grocery shop. Her father Mansur, 52, earns a living by renting out his car. Her elder brother Deependra is studying in class 12. Her grandmother, uncle, and aunt live in Madichaur, Rolpa.

A life in wushu

Nima has worked hard to become a wushu champ.

As a seventh grader, Nima used to accompany her elder brother Deependra to a Judo training center not far from their home in Tikathali. “I joined the club for fitness and safety,” she says. Most martial arts styles, including wushu, lay greater emphasis on self-defense than on attacking enemies. A few months later, there opened a wushu training center that was closer to her home than the Judo training center. That was when Nima began practicing wushu. Nima has persisted in the game largely due to the encouragement of her coach at the center, Nirajan Ale Magar.

Every morning Nima goes to the Dasharath stadium in a public bus. She has a new coach, Rajiv Maharjan, who serves in the Nepal Army. In the evening she goes to the wushu club in her neighborhood and practices with her former coach. Sometimes she trains students at her school, Nepal Don Bosco International, and earns NPR 4,000 per month.

Before the players left for the SAG 2016, the Nepal government announced that it would award each winner NPR 500,000. Nima received the money in July 2016 from former Prime Minister K. P. Oli.

Nima thinks Nepali players could perform far better and compete internationally if they received training and support from the state and had enough time to practice, eat, and rest, like players in foreign countries. Winning the gold was tough, but retaining it will be tougher, she says.

On the day of Guru Purnima, or Teacher’s Day, The Record caught up with Nima at the Dasharath stadium. She sat singing with her friends after paying respects to her teachers in the training hall. Holding a microphone in her right hand, she sang the Nepali song Sustari Sustari.

“We sing all the time,” chimed Susmita Tamang, a close friend of Nima’s. Tamang is also 16 and won a silver medal in wushu at the SAG 2016. For the last three years, Sushmita and Rukum-born Bishwa Budha Magar have been Nima’s close friends. Bishwa, 23, is also an SAG silver medalist in wushu.

“Earlier, we had to shut our ears when Nima laughed. She screamed like a child. But now she seems more mature,” says Bishwa.

Nima knows she can’t stay in the ring forever. “I cannot play in my old age,” she says. “I will train as a coach in the future.”

The players taking a break from training. Nabin Bibhas

From China to Nepal

The Chinese martial art wushu was introduced in Nepal in 1987 by Pranil Dhwaj Karki, a coach who had received training in China. Two years earlier, martial arts had been made legal in Nepal. Before that, the Panchayat rulers had banned the teaching of martial arts.

The Nepali coaches also used to train Indian athletes back then. Now Nepal is behind India in the game. Still, Nepali women generally perform better than men. In SAG 2016, Nepali women earned 36 out of the 60 medals won by Nepal.

Out of the 16 Nepalis who competed in wushu, 12 won medals—one gold, ten silver, and one bronze. According to wushu coach Prakash Maharjan, six, including Nima, were under 20 and had their debut performance in the international arena.

“Young players do better because most of the senior players have been injured in the past, and it affects their performance,” says Maharjan. “The Nepal government does not take responsibility for treating the injured. Naturally, the senior players see no future in the game.”

The thirteenth South Asian Games will be held in Nepal in 2018, but so far the Nepal government has made no preparations.

“Our players train in store-rooms standing on torn mats,” says Maharjan. “There’s no proper lighting. Our government has done nothing to prepare for the next SAG. Meanwhile, players from other countries, including India, are training in China.”

Cover photo: Nima displays her skills with the sword. Gopen Rai/Nepali Times

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story stated that Nima had not received the NPR 500,000 promised by the government. She did receive the amount on July 28, 2016. Nima also received the National Youth Talent Award, along with NPR 100,000, from President Bidhya Bhandari on August 11, 2016.