Nepal celebrates historic first thanks to Para taekwondo champion Shrijana Ghising
Nepal’s Para taekwondo team continues its history-making path as Shrijana Ghising becomes Nepal’s first-ever international champion at the season-ending Para Grand Prix Finals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia23 Dec 2022
Shrijana Ghising's gold medal at the Para Grand Prix Finals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia marked the first time that an athlete from Nepal has stood atop a podium at a major international sporting event.
By Lee Reaney for the IPC
It’s not every day you see an athlete from Nepal stand on top of a podium.
In fact, it had never happened until Nepal’s Para taekwondo team came to life.
Nepal now has a champion to call their own after Shrijana Ghising took the sports world by storm and set the small Himalayan nation abuzz by winning gold this month at World Taekwondo’s prestigious Para Grand Prix Finals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
This is no Cinderella story, either.
Ghising beat the world’s top three fighters on the way to the unprecedented medal, including a 12-0 win over Turkey’s reigning world champion and No. 1-ranked Meryem Cavdar in the final. Cavdar, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic runner-up, was named the Best Female Para Fighter in the world after winning three Para Grand Prix gold medals in 2022 and going 8-0 at the events before falling to Ghising.
Ghising's medal marked the first time an athlete from Nepal had ever stood atop a podium at a major international sporting event.
“I’m over the moon right now,” Ghising said after winning. “You’ll have to pinch me to make sure this is real.”
It was Ghising’s teammate Palesha Goverdhan who first attracted the world’s attention to the idea of sporting success in a country known more for its mountains than medal winners.
Goverdhan was a kick away from winning Nepal’s first-ever Olympic or Paralympic medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. She took a step further at her next competition, winning gold at the Asian Youth Para Games – Nepal’s first international gold medal. She receives a monthly stipend of about 30 USD for her efforts.
So, how does Nepal’s ragtag crew of pioneering Para athletes compete with the full-time, professional Paralympians from around the world?
With a little ingenuity, plenty of persistence, and a tiny, white lie.
Priming for Para prominence
The story of Para taekwondo in Nepal begins like in many other parts of the world – with the persistence of a dedicated coach.
Kabiraj Negi Lama was a talented taekwondoin, whose small stature prevented him from military service and finding international success in Kyorugi (sparring) taekwondo.
Instead, he dedicated his talents to serving others. He was volunteering at a retirement home when in 2014 the Nepal Taekwondo Association tapped him to head up its new Para taekwondo team.
“We had just one player at the time [Yadav Kunwar], who was based out of Korea,” Negi Lama said. “I went around the schools [in Nepal] looking to find athletes.”
Nepal’s Para taekwondo team saw near immediate success, with Ranjana Dhami and Sita Bhandari winning bronze medals at the multisport 2015 IWAS World Games. Both would go on to win multiple international medals, with Dhami standing out as Nepal’s first Para taekwondo star.
“Her silver [at the 2016 Asian Championships in Manila] Philippines and her bronze medal at the World Championships in 2017 [where she beat future Paralympic champion Angelica Espinoza] stand out as highlights of the era,” Negi Lama said. “It was the achievements of that second generation that led to the success of the next generation."
Persistence pays off
Nepal’s third generation of Para taekwondo stars was led by Goverdhan, who at 13 years old made her international debut at the 2017 Asian Championships alongside Dhami and Bhandari.
While Dhami was kicking her way to a second successive Asian Championships medal, Goverdhan did not find it so easy.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” admitted Goverdhan, who had only picked up the sport three years earlier. “I really only knew the slap kick.”
Without a sporting pedigree to rely on, money for sports in Nepal is scarce. With insufficient government funding and no corporate sponsors, the team has relied on participation subsidies from World Taekwondo to travel to events thousands of kilometres away. The team must also deal with time-consuming visa applications.
Unlike some of their better-funded competitors, training in Nepal is a bare-bones endeavour.
While some Paralympic champions in Para taekwondo have weeks-long training camps in exotic locales, teams of physiotherapists and sports psychology doctors, cutting edge health and dietary monitoring, extensive video training, and practical experience with Olympic-calibre teammates, Nepal’s Para taekwondo team focuses on the fundamentals.
“We work on kicking and blocking, and, of course, fitness," Negi Lama said.
It took time before Goverdhan saw the fruits of her labour.
She won two fights at the Paralympic Games on the way to a bronze medal match against China’s then-reigning world champion Li Yujie. Tied in the final minute, Goverdhan missed out on Nepal’s first-ever Olympic or Paralympic medal by a single kick.
With no international medals to show and international travel impacting her Bachelors of Architecture studies, Goverdhan considered calling it quits. Then, everything changed.
Goverdhan made Nepalese sporting history by winning gold at the 2021 Asian Youth Para Games. An instant celebrity at home, she was named Nepal’s Para Athlete of the Year, won a government stipend, and became the face of taekwondo in her country.
“I figured I’d give it one last go and then I won the medal at the Asian Youth Para Games,” she recalled. "Now taekwondo has made a big change in my life and I want to show what I can do at the Asian Para Games [Hangzhou 2022, postponed until 2023].”
Little white lies
Also making her debut at the Asian Youth Para Games was teammate Shrijana Ghising, who won silver in her first international appearance.
The team now had two bona fide stars; two young athletes fighting to become national legends by winning Nepal’s first Olympic or Paralympic medal.
“I was very nervous before that tournament,” Ghising said about her Asian Youth Para Games debut. “But I’m very confident and a hard worker. I just went out there to play.”
Ghising showed even more promise at her second international tournament, the 2022 President’s Cup – Asia, where she stunned the Para taekwondo world by upsetting the weight division’s top fighter, Turkey’s Cavdar, on the way to a silver medal.
Cavdar was the reigning World champion, European champion, and Paralympic silver medallist. So, how did Negi Lama prepare Ghising to fight the world’s top fighter? With a little sports psychology – Nepali-style.
“Coach told me she was a new player – just like me,” Ghising said with a laugh, referring to the ingenious white lie Negi Lama told her before the fight. “I didn’t even know who she was until after the fight.”
While it was an upset worth savouring, the best was yet to come.
The little nation that could
Cavdar went on to have a stellar 2022. She won all three Grand Slam gold medals and was named Best Female Para Fighter by World Taekwondo.
Cavdar trains full-time with the Turkish team – one of the strongest in the world. Turkey was the only nation to qualify fighters in all six weight categories at Tokyo 2020.
Nepal, meanwhile, had to contend with several obstacles just to make it to the Para Grand Prix Finals in Riyadh.
The team’s pre-tournament training was severely interrupted by the major Hindu festivals of Dashain and Tihar, and then the team’s training hall was appropriated by the government to use as a voting location during Nepal’s federal election on 20 November.
The result was a rather unusual training camp.
“We had one week of COVID-style training,” said Negi Lama, referring to the fact that his athletes had to train at home. “We trained twice a day for two to three hours, focusing on sparring and stamina training.”
The team also had to contend with the dreaded visa application process. Delayed visa applications had prevented the athletes from participating in previous Para Grand Prix events earlier in the year.
“We didn’t think we’d get here because of the visas,” Negi Lama said. “We thank World Taekwondo for their help and the Government of Saudi Arabia.”
The abbreviated training schedule did not affect Ghising’s performance. She shone in the Saudi setting.
Ghising beat Mexico’s No. 2-ranked Claudia Romero in the quarterfinal, Brazil’s No. 3-ranked Christiane Nascimento in the semifinal, and the No. 1-ranked Cavdar in the final – and she did it in dominant fashion.
After falling behind early in her first fight, Ghising battled back and never trailed again at the event. She shut out Cavdar 12-0 in the final, beating the world’s best fighter for a second time in 2022.
Besides making history as Nepal’s first-ever champion, the gold from the Para Grand Prix Finals should put Ghising in the Top 6 of the world rankings. If she can maintain the ranking until this time next year, she will become the first Nepali to earn qualification to the Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Of course, after becoming the only athlete in the world to beat the Best Female Fighter in the world twice this year, Ghising has even bigger historical achievements in mind.
“Can you imagine seeing Nepal’s flag at the Paralympic Games?” Ghising asked.
Goverdhan, Nepal’s flagbearer at Tokyo 2020, nodded in agreement: “Yes, but after we win our medals!”
World Taekwondo provides participation subsidies to athletes from new Member National Associations (MNAs), developing countries, and refugees. For more information, or to apply for a participation subsidy, please contact World Taekwondo at email@example.com.