Many athletes’ journeys begin with a spark of passion for their sport, a desire to get onto the field or course, or into the pool, regardless of barriers. Three of our Travel & Training Fund recipients – Houston Dash training player Rachel Stelter, Nepali golfer Pratima Sherpa and swimmer Becca Mann – all experienced that spark. It saw Stelter playing soccer with her father in their local park, Mann sneaking into her sister’s swim practice and Sherpa hitting golf balls with a wooden stick on the course her parents worked at.
We caught up with Mann, Sherpa and Stelter to discuss where that initial spark has taken them in their athletic careers. From setting records to overcoming injuries to working towards becoming the first in their country to do something, their journeys in their sport are only beginning.
WSF: How did you get into your current sport? Did you start in that sport or did you find it more recently after playing other sports?
RS: All I remember is that I started playing soccer when I was 4 with my AYSO team. Except this question got me thinking, ‘Why did my parents even sign me up for soccer in the first place? I am pretty sure neither of them had ever kicked a soccer ball in their life.’ I asked my mom, and she told me that when I was 2 I went to the park with my dad, and I saw girls playing soccer, and I really wanted to play. So, my dad went and bought a size 5 ball, which is the largest size and typically you don’t start using this size until 13 years old, and we would kick back and forth at the park.
PS: My mom and dad worked at a golf club in Nepal, and they used to bring me to the golf course with them. I used to see many players playing golf, and that’s how I got interested in golf. When I was 7 years old, we moved to the golf course to live there. Golf is very expensive in Nepal. My parents couldn’t afford for me to play golf, so I used to play with wooden stick for fun. When I turned 11, I got the opportunity to play golf free at Royal Nepal Golf Club. The Nepal Golf Association started the junior camp, and I joined that camp.
BM: My sister was joining the swim team, and I absolutely had to do everything she did. I was 5 years old and could barely swim so my parents told me I couldn’t join. So I packed my swimsuit, snuck in when we dropped her off, and never looked back.
WSF: What is the biggest obstacle/challenge you have overcome? And what’s the greatest challenge you face today?
RS: The biggest challenge that I have had to overcome, still continue to overcome, and always will is an injury that I sustained during one of my college games in August 2013. I tore my ACL, MCL and both lateral and medial meniscus. At the time, it was obviously devastating physically, but it was also very difficult to process. It took me a couple of weeks before I decided ‘Alright Rachel, it’s time, you need to switch your focus to what you can control: your rehabilitation process so that you can get back out on that field again, back to where you were.’ Except it wasn’t that clear-cut for me and honestly, I don’t think it is for anyone that has gone through this injury. For me, the short version is that I had a lot of issues, including a second surgery once I entered the “return-to-play” phase of the recovery process. This culminated in the team doctor telling me that he did not think that I would be able to play competitively again at the DI level, let alone higher. Thankfully, I was able to not let this one assessment dictate my career. This was a huge turning point and a defining moment for me. I made a decision that I was going to do everything that I could to take care of my body and get back to playing. I was able to reach a point where I was playing completely pain-free. However, I say it is an obstacle that I still continue to overcome and always will because my body is now different. For example, I am missing a significant portion of my hamstring muscle because that was the graft that I used.
PS: I am from a poor family who was not able to afford for me to play golf. I could only golf on Saturdays because I didn’t have money to play every day. When I started to win tournaments, they let me to play every day. Another challenge was sexism. There were many tournaments where I could not participate because I am a woman. Nepal golf has sent lots of men to train abroad but they never sent girls or women. They used to say me, ‘Pratima doesn’t have enough height to play golf, she cannot play golf, there is no future in this game,’ which would discourage me sometimes.
But I am in the USA because of golf. Golf helped me to find my identity as a national player. I proved to them that girls and women can also play golf. Golf is for everyone, not only for men. I became the first Nepali woman to represent Nepal at the Symetra tour in the USA.
Last summer, I was in Nepal and I worked with some girls who also want to play professionally in the future. Nepal golf has started to organize a tournament for girls. I always feel grateful that I didn’t give up in any situation, and now I have changed peoples’ mind towards women’s golf in Nepal.
WSF: Becca, you recently became the first swimmer to complete the Triple Maui Nui Channel swim. Tell us about that experience and why you wanted to take on that challenge.
BM: I just completed it in 20 hours and 53 minutes. It was such an adventure and a really amazing experience. I got to swim through a really pretty sunset, moonrise and sunrise. The stars were brighter than I’ve ever seen, and my hands would pull phosphorescent light with each stroke. It was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but also one of the most rewarding.
I wanted to do it because I was itching for an adventure. Hawaii has always been a special place to me, having completed the Au’Au Channel (Lanai to Molokai) at age 10 and becoming the youngest person to swim it. I’ve always wanted to see how far and long I’d be able to swim, and the Tri Channel was just the perfect opportunity for me to do so.
I have changed peoples’ mind towards women’s golf in Nepal. – Pratima Sherpa
WSF: How has the Travel & Training Fund helped you in your career?
RS: I would have had to walk away from playing if not for the Travel & Training Fund. I sincerely would not have been able to adequately prepare for the 2019 preseason if not for this grant. After being an unpaid training player for the Dash in 2018, I had absolutely no savings. At the time I was awarded the grant, it was two months before preseason started. I wish I could adequately convey the feeling I had when I found out I was a recipient. It was like this enormous weight being lifted off of my chest; I had this freedom to just focus on being athlete. The focus, energy and discipline required to be successful at the professional level is tremendous, but then add enormous financial stress on top of that. The grant took away that financial stress. I was able to work with an elite coach prior to preseason and afford the necessary travel between my various training sessions.
PS: Golf is very expensive, but with the help of WSF I will able to compete in many tournaments. I will able to get more training, which will help me to achieve my goal in the future. WSF has become an important part of my life journey. I feel very proud and blessed that I am part of WSF as a Nepali golfer.
WSF: Do you have any fun facts or hidden talents that people don’t know about you?
RS: My go-to fun fact is always that my Great-Great Uncle brought broccoli to the United States from Italy.
PS: I love badminton. Before golf, I used to play badminton every day and wanted to be a professional badminton player.
BM: I published a young adult fantasy novel, The Stolen Dragon of Quanx, when I was 16. I currently major in screenwriting at USC and haves written several feature and pilot scripts.
To meet our most recent class of Travel & Training Fund recipients, click here.