NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh -- She was just 27 years old, taking care of her 50-day-old son at home, when she started to feel her face go numb. It was July 2007.
"At first, I was in a state of shock. I couldn't understand what was happening to me," Lazreena Bajaj told HuffPost India in a phone interview. "I just waited at home for almost eight hours, alone, until I realised I needed to get myself to the hospital."
The doctor she consulted told her she had Bell's Palsy, and because she had waited too long to come to him, at best, she could hope for 30-40 percent recovery. "I already thought I had lost the battle," she said. She took the medicines he recommended to her, but never went back to the doctor, who she said "had already given up" on her.
The doctor was not the only one. Her husband and in-laws told her to move back to her parents' house, as they couldn't take care of her. "They were not supportive," she said. "I was totally disheartened."
Meanwhile the medicines made her bloat, and Lazreena, who had never weighed more than 55 to 58 kilograms, shot up to 96 kg. Her parents took down all the mirrors in their house, so that she didn't despair further while looking at her reflection. She tried alternative therapies like face massages, praying, reiki. She started consulting a homeopathy doctor and did physiotherapy. And miraculously a year later, she was completely cured, she said, albeit a slight droop on the right ride of her lip.
She returned to her husband's house, after he convinced her to come back since she had recovered. Her first day back 'home', she saw herself on the mirror. She was shocked. "I knew I was gaining weight but when you are living with it every day, and not seeing yourself, you don't realise the change quite that much," she said. "Who is this? I thought... I started crying."
Bajaj has a sports background — she was a sprint runner while at school and a national-level karate champion. She decided to start running every day to lose weight but the first day she went to the neighbourhood park for a run, she started feeling suffocated, and was panicking and sweating by the first 100 metres. "I was very weak, I realised," she said. "I decided to start with walking very slowly instead."
However, a couple of months of daily walking saw no change in her fitness level. By that time, her son, Akarsh, was almost two years old and she went to buy him a cycle on her birthday. There, she saw a cycle for adults, a Firefox Viper, that was about ₹18,000. She was tempted to buy it, but it was too expensive, and she had been unemployed for more than two years by now, and didn't have enough money saved up for it.
Around the same time, in late 2008, she developed a painful lump in her breast. The results of the ultrasound were like another blow. The doctor diagnosed her with "fibrosis of the breast" — beginning of breast cancer. He recommended the removal of one breast, and replace it with an artificial one.
Lazreena was aghast. "I was only 29 years old," she said. "I refused to take this advice."
"Who is this? I thought... I started crying."
While she at first started allopathic medicine, she also tried ayurveda and then went with her medical reports to the same homeopathy doctor who had treated her for Bell's Palsy. After six months of homeopathy, her second ultrasound showed that the fibrosis had cleared.
"Even the doctors couldn't believe it when they saw the results," she said. "Now my only problem was my weight."
The road to cycling
By the time her son's third birthday came about, when Bajaj went to buy him another cycle, she bought the Firefox for herself too.
But when she wheeled it into her house, her in-laws were not happy, claiming women in their family did not cycle. Her husband, too, was not supportive. For six months, the expensive cycle just stayed parked at home, unused. One day, early in the morning, she decided to just do it. She woke up at 5 am, while everyone at home was still asleep, and rode for five kilometres. In an hour, she was back home.
Her family didn't interfere. "They were free from social pressures," she explained. "I was doing this when no one was on the road."
Though she continued cycling, she was far from regular, she said.
Then one day, her local cycle store, where she had bought her bike, told her that they were organising a cycling event where they were inviting women to participate on new year's day. This was 2014. It was the first time she rode for 20 kilometres, and she was surprised to know so many people — especially women — cycled, and seemed to own beautiful, shiny bikes. "It seemed like such a normal thing," she recalled. "I felt very inspired."
Lazreena with her son, Akarsh.
From that day on, she started cycling every day, and on her birthday that year, which falls on 15 March, she bought herself a light-weight carbon road bicycle. By this time, the former HR professional had begun consulting for firms on a freelance basis and was financially sound, she said.
"My husband was furious," she told HuffPost India. "I listened to him silently, but the next day I went to the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium to watch a cycle race, taking my bike with me."
"They were free from social pressures," she explained.
There she met the then-general secretary of the Delhi Cycling Association, who asked her age (she was 34 then), and then asked her to send her six-year-old son to him instead. He told her that they usually had younger cyclists, as it later helped them get jobs as well. When she remained adamant, he asked her to come at 5 am for practice.
Lazreena began travelling to the Indira Gandhi stadium regularly from her house in Noida, slowly learning how to build endurance while cycling. Two months into her training, the same general secretary — her coach — jokingly mentioned there was a race, and asked her if she would like to register. Lazreena said yes.
However, when she reached the venue, she became nervous. "There were national-level cyclists taking part," she said. "I was scared."
Surprising everyone, including herself, she came first in the race.
Not everyone was happy — some girls' mothers complained that she was too old to compete. But her coach was ecstatic. "He finally began accepting that I was serious about this," she said. "I saw the difference in how he regarded me after that."
"Whenever someone tells me something is tough, I get interested in it," she confessed.
Following her first win, she began regularly taking part in races, and came second in the Delhi state level championship that year. Later in 2014, she came first in the trials for the national championship. She took part in the race, but a puncture, and the fact that she didn't have any of her own sponsors or support staff for the event made her bow out.
The next year, she took part in the national games in Kerala, where the same thing happened again. She decided to teach herself how to fix punctures, so she wouldn't face the frustration of disqualification again. That year, she came first in trials thrice in a row. Now, in 2016, she has won second place in a 36-kilometre tricycle cyclathon, and first place in a track-and-trail competition. A few months ago, she found out about the 'Desert 500' cycling challenge across the Thar desert, one of the toughest cycling races that requires you to bike for 250 kilometres in the 40 degree celsius desert heat.
She found a sponsor for the race, and she not only managed to complete the race, she did it in 9 hours and 57 minutes, winning the second prize this year.
"Whenever someone tells me something is tough, I get interested in it," she confessed. "Winning and losing is secondary. I just want to have fun."
Lazreena after winning a race in Delhi.
So it wasn't surprising when she decided that she wanted to move beyond riding in the plains, and signed up for a mountain biking race. Though a tyre blast within the first 200 metres of the race slowed her down, she got it fixed and rode off again. She had already lost a precious 45 minutes start-time, and all the other participants were well ahead of her.
"I thought, let me just ride," she said. "I went fast."
She fell on a ditch during the race, and then twice again, scraping her knees and elbows. Yet, she continued to pedal. She was the second person to cross the finish line. The winner had been just 20 minutes ahead of her.
"I enjoyed it a lot," she said.
So, how does her family feel about her cycling? "They have come to accept it," she said, "because now I have got some fame."
"Udti chidiya ko duniya salaam karti hai. (The world salutes a high flying bird). This is the reality of life — support is subjective."
Now, cycling is Bajaj's highest priority after her son Akarsh, who is eight years old now, she said.
Lazreena with her son Akarsh.
Doesn't it become hard for her to travel to different parts of the country and take care of Akarsh? She said she always gets his support when she wants to go for a race. He usually accompanies her for all cycle events in Delhi, as he loves cycling as well, and lives with his maternal grandparents whenever Lazreena goes for a race outside the city.
"I don't have fear of death anymore," said Bajaj, who is 36 years old now and cycles 50-60 kilometres every day, five days a week. She hopes to set an example for other women her age who she said feel demotivated for different reasons, and are told they can't — or shouldn't — do something they want to achieve. She said she regularly meets women who struggle with their families, or with their own problems, and are unable to break out of other's expectations and ideas on how they should behave. She said this applied to men as well.
"If I had lost when they (some of her doctors, family) had given up I wouldn't be here," she said, adding that she has her family's respect today because of what what she's doing now, despite two years of opposition, she said.
Lazreena, who has won 12 medals so far — 9 of them gold, three silver, wants to represent India for international cycling competitions. Her dream is to compete in the Olympics. However, she needs to overcome several hurdles before she can hope to achieve this — she needs good sponsors, trainers, and new equipment in order to even stand a chance. But she is not one to give up.
"I'm no super god," she said. "But the idea is to not lose hope."
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