When she shot her first arrow at the Baranagar Archery Club close to her house, there were not many women in the sport, forget icons. Seventeen years later, Dola Banerjee is an icon herself - an idol to the recent trickle of young girls in archery and to her teammates who fondly refer to her as Dola didi.
Calm, level-headed, a lazy gait that borders on self-belief and actually induces a sense of assurance among her teammates even when the chips are down, Dola is literally an 'elder sister' in Indian archery.
Dola returned on Sunday evening to a rousing welcome after winning the grand final of the World Cup in Dubai. "I never thought I would be able to beat Choi (Eun Young) in the final. I shot with a free mind having assured India of a silver medal. Probably the pressure got on to her in the end. I was under pressure in the semi-final against the Russian (Natalya Erdyniyeva). I badly wanted to win and secure a medal first. So to me winning the semi-final was tougher."
Ever since the 27-year-old started representing the country when she was 16, Dola has seen a host of new faces. Some have even left archery, but she fights on - single-handedly braving every odd, financial constraint, a dearth of good infrastructure and even lack of proper incentives and recognition from the federation or the government.
A host of firsts have already been associated with her. An individual gold medal in the European GP in Antalya, Turkey, in 2005, gold in the fourth leg of the World Cup in Dover in July this year, a stunning victory over former world and Olympic champion Yu Min Jin of Korea at the first leg of the World Cup earlier this year in Ulsan, Korea, a second successive quota place for the India women's team at the Olympics, the first woman archer to win the Arjuna Award and as many as five national records - Dola is also the first archer to be employed by Indian Railways which opened recruitments for archers last year.
"It's a huge responsibility," Dola says: "There is a lot of pressure on me and seniors like Chekrovolu Swuro and Reena Kumari. If we do well, it becomes a shade easier for the girls who follow us and take up archery. So it's a constant battle, within and for the next generation," she says.
And talking of the next generation, for Dola it begins at home. Brother Rahul, who followed her to the club and then to the Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur, is already the best male archer going by current form even though he lost the Olympic qualification meet semi-final to Mangal Singh Champia in Xian, China, in September.
"It's a privilege," says Rahul. "To have your idol as an elder sister is what not many can dream of. She is always so reassuring and confident even when all is not right. It gives you a belief that all is not lost and you can fight back," he says.
Rahul is particularly happy with Dola's win over the Korean. "Choi has been on the top of the charts throughout the year and to beat her to be the World Cup champion is very satisfying. It will help India shed the Korea phobia in the years to come," Rahul said.
Her parents Ashok (a businessman), and Kalpana (a homemaker), are on top of the world. "What started as an endeavour to make her step out of the house as a child has brought the world inside our home," says Ashok. "I always wanted Dola to be a singer. But I have no complains now," says Kalpana, who is the sister of Manas Mukherjee, singer Shaan and Sagarika's father.
Gold: European Grand Prix in Antalya, Turkey, in 2005
Gold: fourth leg of the Dover World Cup in July, 2007
13th: Athens Olympics, 2004
Qualified for Beijing Olympics
13th: World Championships in Beijing, 2001
15th: World Championships in Madrid, 2005 (team finished 4th)
7th: Asian Games in Busan, 2002
4th: Asian Games in Doha, 2006
Gold (individual and team): SAF Games, Colombo 2006
National records 5
National champion 1999, 2000, 2001, 2007
Junior national champion 1994, 95, 96, 97
Sub-junior national champion 1992, 93