This article is part of #MakingSportWork, a series launched by The Better India and Sports and Society Accelerator. The series celebrates India’s independence with stories of heroes who have spent years working to improve the lives around them through sport. Stay tuned for inspiring stories from those #MakingSportWork.
It was 2011, and Áine Edwards, a Chennai-based IT consultant, found herself in Mahabalipuram on her weekend before meeting the eyes of a three-year-old girl and thinking she had found a old friend. Kamali Moorthy and Edwards are very separate, age and background are the least important. What they immediately felt was their shared love of surfing.
Edwards spent much of his weekends surfing the Mahabalipuram shoreline at the newly opened Mumu Surf School, interacting with local surfers and children. When Edwards first saw Kamali standing next to her mother in their new home, “she was so small,” as Edwards, now 49, puts it. The couple immediately connected “like old soul friends who had reunited”.
Kamali was the only girl surfer in the community and she helped deepen Edwards into her world. Originally from Ireland, Edwards spent more time in India over the next 10 years than in his home country, helping the surfing and skateboarding community with everything from purchasing equipment to managing of the media, while running his consulting firm. “I do what I do because I love it. It keeps me young at heart; therefore, I can balance my time between work, because that is my passion – helping young athletes the best I can” , she says.
The first time Edwards visited India was in 2003, when she spent six months volunteering at a school of 250 students in north Chennai. The project she was working on had three goals; two of them were to set up a computer lab and raise funds for a school building and a bus. The third was to encourage sports, which does not always happen in Indian schools. Too often, sports are seen as a distraction from education rather than an enhancement to it.
But Edwards had trained as a swimmer as a teenager and played competitive hockey, so she was well aware of the benefits of the sport. “I was lucky to have had sport in my life,” she says. “Team sports have allowed me to make friends with others and learn to compete with them; being an individual while collaborating are brilliant fundamental skills to possess.
It is thanks to Edwards that Kamali, soon to be 13, has gained international recognition. Edwards met Jamie Thomas, founder of Zero Skateboards, while visiting India, and she introduced him to Kamali. Thomas was impressed with the six-year-old and gave her one of his skateboards. He also taught her some new tricks and posted a picture of her on a skateboard in a white dress on his social media. Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk saw this post and shared it with his four million followers, adding, “This pic of a girl in India is my new favorite skate pic.”
Kamali and her mother Suganthi were also the subject of a BAFTA nominated documentary titled “Kamali” by Sasha Rainbow. The film also won the 2018 Mumbai International Short Film Festival.
Kamali is now focused on winning this year’s national surfing competition. “I feel ready this year because I’ve been training a lot,” she said.
Of Edwards, Kamali says, “We’re great friends and we have a lot of fun together in everything we do. [Edwards] takes a lot of videos and makes my Instagram so people all over the world can follow me. I won video surfing competitions in Australia called BlastOff. We [also] travel together. My family trusts Edwards to take me traveling, and even now we are planning a trip to the Maldives.
In 2020, Edwards was due to return to Ireland, but the COVID pandemic kept her in India. She takes stock of her situation and decides to take a break from her job and devote herself entirely to the surf and skate community.
“During the pandemic, we explored their needs and goals. As there is no club, no NGO, no infrastructure, I had to get involved. I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished together,” she said.
Among these achievements are four national participants in skateboarding and a silver medal for Kamali, but equally important, three athletes have obtained sports scholarships at Hindustan University, Chennai, which will allow them to continue their studies while competing on the national scene. Edwards believes this step “changes everything…it causes a positive disruption of belief systems within the community and that’s history in the making.”
Likewise, she believes that “Kamali’s most important role will not be as a medalist, but as an inspirational figure and mentor for girls.”
It is not possible for every athlete to win a medal. But by developing and nurturing a sporting culture, Edwards has shown the local community how sport can benefit their children and help them extend their lives beyond what they previously thought possible.
Today, Edwards is back in Ireland but still extending his support to the community via WhatsApp. “We are in touch every week through WhatsApp, video calls, messages, photo sharing,” she says. She helped distance athletes apply for college and surfing scholarships and connected them with Spider Murphy, a shaper in South Africa, who will make them custom surfboards. She is also in the process of collecting nine high-performance surfboards from her network of high profile surfers and friends in Europe to send back to Mahabalipuram. “I proved that we could manage from a distance. It is also a learning for the future.
Nitish Varun, a 20-year-old from a fishing community, started surfing with a broken fridge door before Mukesh, the owner of Mumu Surf School, gave him a proper surfboard. More recently he received a high performance surfboard thanks to Edwards, which he says has changed the lives of many surfers in Mahabalipuram. “Some surfers had quit surfing because they couldn’t get surfboards, but they’re all surfing again after Edwards helped them get surfboards,” he says.
Edwards also takes videos of surfers so they can see their mistakes and correct them. Thanks to his support and encouragement, everyone in the village of Varun also supports surfing. “They also organize local surfing competitions,” he says.
That’s not all progress, however. In a heartbreaking display of community challenges, the small skate park Edwards sat and filmed next to was dug up in July to make room for a beachside parking lot. “I felt it was the end of an era,” Edwards says. If there is a positive side to this development, it is that the athletes have already approached the village leaders for a replacement. “Now is the time for them to take the lead and ensure a similar future is offered to the next generation,” Edwards says.
As with most sports activities in India, sponsorships and funding are the main hurdle for the community. Edwards ran his first crowdfunding campaign to take athletes to national championships. She also received donations from people who saw the community’s social media posts and reached out to them independently. “It’s been very organic and on a need-to-have basis. We overcome each obstacle as we go,” says Edwards.
That’s not to say Edwards doesn’t have bigger goals. She plans to take a team to an international road surfing competition. According to Varun, being able to compete in other Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives “would help broaden our perspective in many ways.”
But perhaps the dream closest to Edwards’ heart is to take a team to Ireland to visit “the beautiful country” she calls home and establish a connection between an Irish surf town and Mahabalipuram, where both parties can experience each other’s cultures through surfing. and skateboarding.
If you want, you can follow surfers and skateboarders via @mahabssurfnskate and @Goodonyaae on Instagram.
Written by Team Billion Plus; Edited by Yoshita Rao