Sheetal Devi, Aditi Swami and Kishore Jena emerge into Indian sports' spotlight in 2023

Sheetal Devi, Aditi Swami and Kishore Kumar Jena are ESPN India's picks for the best emerging athletes of 2023. ESPN

It's perhaps the best part of sport - an unheralded name making a breakthrough and being catapulted into the spotlight. There's excitement at having to learn of a new athlete, attaching hope (often unfairly) to a career that's yet to be blighted, and as is wont in India, hype.

The struggles to get there are at times glossed over, but there's no denying that the young talent emerging within India in a year where the Asian Games and other World Championships offered a national spotlight are there to stay.

Here are ESPN India's Emerging Athletes of the Year 2023:

Sheetal Devi

The 16-year-old armless archer had a year to remember, and it can't be merely termed a breakthrough. This was a truly special year for Sheetal, who won medals in all the categories of all the tournaments she participated in 2023.

Starting with the Para-Archery European Cup in May to the ongoing Khelo India Para Games, Sheetal has won multiple medals in compound individual, mixed team and team events. This includes two gold medals at the Asian Para Games in Hangzhou, as many at the Bangkok Asian Para Archery Championships and a silver at the World Para Archery Championships, where she became the world's first female armless archer to clinch a medal.

Her performance in the final of the individual event at the Para Asian Games was one of the moments of the year. It's mind-boggling to think that she has achieved so much at just 16, roughly three years since she took up the sport.

Moment of the Year: Sheetal Devi finds perfection, despite all the odds

This month, she was named the Best Youth Athlete at the Asian Paralympic Committee awards ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and also became world number one in individual rankings.

"It's unbelievable when I look one year back -- where and how I was and where I am now. With every competition, I feel more confident," she told the World Archery website. Speaking about her upcoming goals, she said, "I want to win a medal at the Paralympic Games and bring glory to my nation. This is my dream."

There's no doubt that there's more to come from this supremely talented teenager.

- Anish Anand

Aditi Swami

Becoming India's first-ever senior world champion in your debut season, beating the country's most successful player on the biggest stage of your sport at only 17 years of age... emerging athlete stories don't often get better than this.

Aditi Swami, the reigning women's compound archery world champion, enjoyed a dream debut season in 2023.

After a slow start to her first senior season, the 17-year-old became the Under-18 women's world champion soon after breaking the junior qualifying world record in July. The crowning glory came a few weeks later when she became the youngest senior world champion in the World Cup era, scripting history for Indian archery. She beat Jyothi Surekha Vennam, the flagbearer of Indian compound archery with eight World Championship medals, in the semis and then won the gold medal in Berlin with the confidence of a veteran.

'Age doesn't matter': 17-year-old world champ Aditi Swami on her dream debut season

In October, she was a part of the Indian clean sweep at the Asian Games, winning the individual bronze (after narrowly losing to Jyothi in the semis) and a gold in the team event.

In a sport that has been perpetually underrepresented in India due to its lack of Olympic presence, the teenager made an instant mark with her seemingly nerveless performances and an ever-present smile. And to think she only picked up the sport by chance as a compulsory extracurricular activity because as an introvert, the solitary nature of archery appealed to her more than the team sports at the stadium her father took her to.

Compound archery may be out of sight for a while in an Olympic year, but keep an eye out for Aditi Swami in the years to come.

- Zenia D'cunha

Kishore Kumar Jena

Kishore Kumar Jena was two throws away from becoming the first Indian in eight years to beat Neeraj Chopra - an Olympic, World, Diamond League, Commonwealth and Asian Games champion. Yep, that's just how good he is.

Kishore has had the kind of year athletes can only dream of: he became India's second-best javelin thrower, won silver at the Asian Games, finished fifth at the World Championships and booked his spot at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Along the way, he improved his personal best from 78.05m to 87.54 - that's almost a 10m improvement in less than a year. Again, only the kind of growth that most athletes dream of.

Kishore's year began with him joining the 80m club in March and he repeated that feat with another solid throw at the Nationals in June. It was good, but it did not amount to much in the larger scheme of things. He was India's #3 thrower on form but that did not put him up there with the best in the business. Kishore contemplated giving up the sport...but pulled himself together to give it one last shot. And that changed his life.

The 3am phone call that saved Kishore Jena's career and gave India its second javelin hero

He threw 84.38m at the Sri Lanka national championships, a throw that would go on to make a strong impact in India's track and field history. It was a throw that saw the birth of India's newest javelin star.

That throw changed Kishore's approach to sport. Having qualified for the Worlds, he was now rubbing shoulders with the big boys, spending time alongside Neeraj making a name for himself. He delivered at each time of asking. At the biggest competitions on the calendar.

What sets him apart, much like Neeraj, is his ability to stay true to his roots. That's precisely why he has not changed his username on Zoom and it remains "Jena 84.38m". "I have not changed because that was my starting point. I won't ever change it."

- Shyam Vasudevan