Bhawna Jat was the only Olympian taking part in the National Open Athletics Championships in Warangal, but the race-walker pulled out in the 20km event after 5km, citing illness. She remained on the sidelines on Thursday, cheering on her Railways mate Ravina, who finished second.

“I haven’t felt well in the last few days and haven’t had the time to train properly,” said Bhawna, who has shuttled around the country for felicitation ceremonies after touchdown from Tokyo. The 25-year-old finished the 20km race at the Olympics in the 32nd position with a timing of 1:37:38.

For Bhawna, who hails from a farmer’s family at Kabra village in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, participating in the Tokyo Olympics has been life-changing. “Olympics was big for me. Coming from a village, and to get on the international stage first up with the Olympics was like a dream come true moment." 

From breakfast with the Prime Minister at the Red Fort to high tea with the President at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to being the guest of honour around the country, she is slowly adjusting to the newfound fame. “Now people have started recognising me. When I am on flights, people are curious if I am Bhawna, the athlete. It feels nice. I feel proud when that happens because of where I come from,” she said.

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It’s all the more a vindication for the Jat family. They initially faced criticism from fellow villagers when Bhawna pursued race-walking. “When I was competing at the district and state level, a lot of people used to tell my father, " Ladki ko bahar mat bhejo  [don’t send the girl out]. That it [athletics] won’t amount to anything. But my father wouldn’t listen,” she said. 

Bhawna stumbled into race-walking during a 2008 district-level competition. She entered the event because there were no slots available in other events. She knew little about the sport but decided to stick by it. Her family played a pivotal role in her development. Her brother, Prakash Chandra Jat, became a makeshift coach in her early days.

“My brother quit his education because there wasn’t enough money at home. He did a private job to help me take up sports. My uncle used to help me as well. We didn’t have a phone, but he did. We used to search on YouTube, ‘how to race-walk’ to learn the technique,” she said.

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Bhawna credits her coach Gurmukh Saig, under whom she has trained since 2018, for enabling the Olympic qualification. She booked her Tokyo berth at the National Championships (Ranchi) in 2020 with a national record time – which was later broken by Priyanka Goswami earlier this year.

“The villagers back home were very happy. They threw a big function to welcome me back after my qualification. Almost everyone from the village was there. My parents were very happy. They did not know what the Olympics were. When the media showed up at my home, they realised the magnitude of the competition. They said, ‘You should have told us earlier what the Olympics were’ (laughs).” 

Having become the face of Kabra, which has a population of a little over 2,500, Bhawna is helping change perceptions and inspiring youngsters back home. “Back in my village, no one was into running. Wearing shorts was a bit awkward for me and for them too, but now, of course, things have changed. Now, the children in my village are going to the ground, and even taking up race-walking. They are saying they want to play in the Olympics.”

The Commonwealth Games and Asian Games next year are on the top of her agenda and Bhawna is keen on getting back to full fitness. "I will have to admit that I wasn’t able to do my best [at the Olympics], but I gave everything. I gained invaluable experience from the Olympics and feel I can give my best in the coming events,” she said.