We often hear South Asians in media and entertainment, or even South Asians in kids literary world talk about the lack of diversity and representation. "You can't become something you can't see, right?" So, ahead of the Super Bowl this weekend, America’s best-known and most-hyped championship, we're putting 7 South Asian athletes in the spotlight. If you don't follow sports, you've likely never heard of them. But hopefully that will change over time, as these and other new South Asian athletes strive to become household names and inspire a generation of South Asian children to pursue unconventional career paths.
Mohini Bhardwaj, Cincinnati-raised by an Indian Hindu father and Russian mother made the Olympic Team for the 2004 Athens games. Team USA won the silver medal, and Mohini became the first Indian-American gymnast – and the second Indian-American ever, after Alexi Grewal in 1984 – to medal at the Olympics. Her journey began when she started gymnastics at merely age four. At age 13, her family moved to Orlando so she could train with a well-known coach and at 16, she moved to Houston solo to follow him. Although she claims that living alone at 16 led to partying, causing her gymnastics to suffer, she persevered and eventually competed for UCLA.
Four years later, Raj Bhavsar, born and raised in Houston to Gujarati parents, competed in the 2008 Beijing games and brought home a team bronze medal. He has two gymnastics elements named after him – gymnasts can now perform “The Bhavsar” on the still rings and the parallel bars. After the Olympics, Bhavsar began performing with Cirque du Soleil.
Why didn’t I know there was an Indian-American in the NFL in the 80s? Oh right, because there was no social media back then. Sanjay Beach, who is of Indian and Jamaican origin, joined the NFL in 1988, playing for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers before leaving in the early 1990s to pursue his MBA.
The Packers have had the only two NFL players of Indian-American descent both on their roster; the other was Brandon Chillar, who was first drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2004. He won the 2011 Super Bowl with the Packers before retiring to invest in the Elite Football League of India and coach his former high school team.
Pakistani-American quarterback Gibran Hamdan was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 2003, making him the first player of Pakistani descent in the NFL. Gibran went on to play for the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers, the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills. Football runs in the family – his brother is a coach for the University of Washington Huskies and his wife is the granddaughter of former NFL head coach Bud Grant.
While the NFL had players of South Asian descent in the 80s, the NBA took a bit longer. In 2015, 7 foot two inch Satnam Singh Bhamara became the first Indian player to be drafted when he was picked by the Dallas Mavericks. Bhamara grew up in a remote village in Punjab and moved to Florida at the age of 15 without speaking any English. He now plays in the NBA League of Canada.
The year before, Punjabi-Canadian Sim Bhullar went undrafted, but signed with the Sacramento Kings. After a rocky start – the Kings waived him and he began playing with a D-league team, he resigned a 10-day contact with the Kings, and checked in for the final 16.1 seconds of a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. In those 16 seconds, he became the first player of Indian descent to play in an NBA game. Seven-foot five-inch Sim, who is the sixth-tallest player in NBA history, now plays in China.
Avani Nadkarni is a former journalist who currently works in tech PR and is forever navigating the tricky balance of trying to raise her child in the U.S. while teaching him about his Indian and Sri Lankan roots.