Karnataka's Aishwarya Babu may have travelled to Chennai for the 61st Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships hoping to top the field emphatically in triple jump, but she left the city with the long jump gold to her name as well.
On the final day, Aishwarya took the gold medal home again with a 6.60m attempt in long jump. She couldn't better her 6.73m effort from qualifying which made her India's second-best all-time long jumper after the legendary Anju Bobby George.
This came after she broke the national record in the women's triple jump with a 14.14m effort on Monday.
The feat was the icing on the cake as she secured a place in yet another event of the upcoming Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Birmingham. She had already made the triple jump cut for CWG this year at the Indian Grand Prix in Thiruvananthapuram with a leap of 13.94m.
Aishwarya's coach B.P. Aiyappa is happy with his ward's performance but is a little disappointed to not tick the long jump national record from his list of objectives.
"Very positive takeaways from the meet. This has been a wonderful performance from her. Expecting a national record (6.83m) in long jump as well was a bit much, I think. I don’t have any regrets. Getting a national record would be nice and getting it at the CWG would be perfect,” Aiyappa says after the event.
While the gold medal is a big shot in the arm, Aishwarya committed five fouls in her six attempts, making it to the podium with a solid second jump.
“She gets a little bit anxious sometimes. She's a very dedicated athlete. In the hotel room also, she'll keep counting down the time left for her event. She just wants to get done with her jumps,” Aiyappa says.
Ask Aishwarya about her process and what one gets are bumper sticker dialogues. Proficient in Kannada and Telugu, she's probably more eloquent in those two languages but Aiyappa speaks to her only in English to help her communicate better with those following her career.
"I need to achieve. We're born so we have to achieve. I want to achieve something in this life," Aishwarya says.
And achieve she has. Aishwarya has managed a 60cm improvement in her jumps. She managed a 13.55m jump at the National Open in Warangal last year. Aiyappa, however, is not surprised by the spike in her distances.
"This improvement has not come over a short period of time. It's come over the last two-and-half years. She was the champion in the last open nationals in both jumps. Her performance now in that light is a small improvement," he says. This is particularly poignant considering his first hurdle with the Bengaluru-based jumper was an anterior cruciate ligament strain.
Aiyappa first brushed shoulders with coaching when he trained his wife, Pramila, a heptathlete. In many ways, life came a full circle for the former quartermiler when his wife discovered Aishwarya.
His own ambitions are linked to the jumper who turns 25 on Wednesday.
"When Pramila trained with me, she became an Olympian, in 2008 Beijing. Back then, I thought, I'll take another two years and make another Olympian but it's been 14 years and I still haven't made another one. With Aishwarya, there's hope. If we win a medal at the Commonwealth or Asian Games, we have a shot," he adds.
On a simpler level, Aiyappa is aware of the impact of her performances in Chennai and believes Aishwarya can be a source of inspiration for young athletes, especially from Karnataka.
“I want parents to watch this and push their sons and daughters into athletics. There are a lot of avenues, especially with how Khelo India has come up. There are also sporting corporates in JSW and Reliance, who are doing phenomenal work. There are a lot of openings. In another five-six years, athletics will become really big. We all know how Neeraj Chopra’s medal has changed the scene,” he said.
After her national record-breaking feat on Monday, Aishwarya had said, “Yeah, I expected this to happen. I was practising to break the NR only. It is my first NR. I am so happy. My coaches and JSW have supported me a lot.”
Aishwarya, who by her admission, trains for long jump only a day or two ahead of events, said, “It is all because of my speed and explosive strength...”
Coming from a home where her father is government employee, mother is a homemaker and husband a part of the governor's office, Aishwarya often travels without her family.
She uses one word - “Super” - specifically for her husband, Nandan Kumar, who Aiyappa hails as her 'backbone.'
"He is a common man. He does not find time between work to travel with me, but he and my family support me a lot," she says.
Away from family and with challenges galore on the track, Aishwarya has found comfort on the road in curd rice.
"She is addicted to rice. Today also, she wanted to order it for lunch. I am fed up of this obsession," Aiyappa jokes.
From her beginnings in sprinting to jumping, struggles with injury and now national records, Aishwarya has come a long way. But for her, the road has just begun.
"I need to cross 14.35m. That's my target," she says, hoping to make the mark in Birmingham in a few weeks. This becomes that much more important given that Aiyappa plans to restrict her to only long jumps from next season.
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