Barkha Sonkar: Heart Over Height

Barkha Sonkar: Heart Over Height Local Heroes

The sweltering heat inside the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium in Kochi made even sitting uncomfortable, let alone competing in a high-intensity game of basketball. But one young girl in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state team — a short-haired, strongly-built point guard — was going about her business like a seasoned professional.

Distributing the ball, making plays, getting her teammates involved and hustling after loose balls, it was just another day in the office for Barkha Sonkar. Her UP team would eventually go on to secure a historic bronze in the 65th National Basketball Championship for Junior Men and Women. And it was no coincidence that the barely 5-ft 5-in Sonkar had a key role to play in this podium finish.

For Sonkar, though, the stirring run in Kochi was just another milestone in a spectacular journey that has taken her all the way from the banks of the Ganges to the sunny beaches of Florida.

Yet Another Varanasi Gem

The fourth daughter in a family of seven, sports was perhaps the last thing that Barkha Sonkar’s motor-mechanic father and homemaker mother expected her to pick up. “I started off playing cricket, but then switched over to basketball in fifth standard,” Sonkar says over a phone chat.

Barkha Sonkar
Sonkar representing India at the 2014 FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women.

Sonkar’s first few months of hoops were just about getting a feel for a new sport, but after seeing her teammates and friends making it to the district and state teams, she decided she needed the same for herself.

Not coincidentally, Sonkar’s upward trajectory began at the iconic Udai Pratap College in Varanasi — the hallowed venue that has thrown up legendary international names like the ‘Singh Sisters’, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Trideep Rai.

Rising Through The Ranks

Within a year of picking up basketball for the first time, Sonkar began steadily rising through the ranks, representing Uttar Pradesh state at the U-14 and U-16 levels, while simultaneously getting called up to Indian national team camps. It was during one of these camps in 2010 that the prestigious IMG Academy conducted special tryouts at the Sanskriti School in New Delhi.

The petite Sonkar was nowhere close to being the tallest player on the floor. But pitted against 27 other hopefuls that included national standouts like Poojamol KS, Sharanjeet Kaur and Sangeeta Kaur, it was Sonkar, along with Delhi’s Soumya Babbar, and Chhattisgarh’s Kavita Akula and Pooja Ambastha, who made the final cut. IMG coaches Daniel Barto and Andy Borman were particularly impressed with Sonkar’s ball handling, stamina and willingness to play hard on every possession.

Barkha Sonkar with her IMG Academy teammates
Sonkar with her IMG Academy teammates

Eventually, the four girls, along with four boys (one of whom was none other than future household name Satnam Singh), received full basketball scholarships to train and study at the state-of-the-art IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The North American Experience

“My parents were really worried. How would I cope? How would I manage? I didn’t even know any English back then,” Sonkar says. Hearing her now speaking flawlessly with a strong American accent, it’s hard to believe that this confident girl was once a shy, timid teenager back in Sarsauli, Varanasi.

“The first few months in the US were hard, but I adjusted after that.” Adjust she did, so much so that Sonkar’s American friends now outnumber her Indian ones. She doesn’t even miss Indian food much. “I know it is not good for me,” she explains. The butter-drenched parathas and spicy curries have been replaced by a healthy staple of boiled eggs, brown bread, milk, cut fruits, grilled chicken and salads.

“Now whenever I go back home, little girls come up to me and tell me that they want to be like me,” Sonkar says. “Who would have thought that?” she adds rhetorically, the pride in her voice palpable.

If the narrow bylanes of ancient Banaras taught her to dream about playing for India, the sprawling IMG Academy has made her aspire for more: become the first Indian national in the WNBA.

Fundraisers From Indian Well-Wishers

Now 20-years-old, Sonkar has just completed her freshman year at Hillsborough Community College, Florida. But as recently as last summer, after her graduation from IMG, Sonkar’s extended stay in the US had looked unlikely. That was until numerous well-wishers from the Indian basketball community, led by yesteryear star Shiba Maggon, rallied to collect funds for her college tuition.

Barkha Sonkar with her mentor Shiba Maggon
Sonkar with her mentor Shiba Maggon who organised a fundraiser for her US College education.

Since then, Sonkar has conveyed her gratitude with consistent performances for Hillsborough. Competing in Region VIII of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) circuit, which comprises community and junior colleges across the state of Florida, Sonkar started 16 of her team’s 27 regular season games. Despite limited minutes, she still averaged close to 10 points per game, leading to her selection in the mid-Florida Conference All Second team. While her team didn’t make the playoffs, Sonkar has received interest for her performances from scouts. She is hopeful of a transfer to a Division 1 or Division 2 college in the much more competitive NCAA circuit after her sophomore year.

For now, though, the psychology major is happy to enjoy her offseason, and continue honing her academic and hardwood skills.

“As my parents keep telling me, ‘Tum wahaan mann laga ke padhna, mann laga ke khelna.’” (Focus on your studies and play with passion.)

All images are courtesy Barkha Sonkar.

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