A day before the Inter-State athletics championships that began in Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday, India’s 77-year-old Russian-American coach Galina Bukharina was curiously following one of her wards as she completed a lap. After whispering a few instructions to her, she was back to where she initially stood, with a stopwatch in hand this time.

Bukharina is realistic about where her runners stand. “At this moment, a (world) medal in 400m is not a realistic dream. Maybe we will get somebody. We have to get better and better. If you look at stats, in men’s 400m, first 20-25 Indians average higher than many Europeans (sic). They are that close to each other.”

It’s not that Bukharina has not had any success at all. Under her watch, India has shone in the Asian Games, winning a gold, four silver and a bronze medal. However, recently her wards have been plagued with ill luck.

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Former Junior world champion Hima Das, who she believes is the most talented of the group, suffers from recurring bouts of backache, which forces her to only run events under 200m. “Most kids from poor families in India have a lot of problems. Hima had a chronic pain in her lower back. When she came young, she was very talented. Hima swept the world with medals but I told her, her next medals will be very, very hard to get. I told her she will have a lot of injuries because she had overdeveloped early. We are doing everything to help her. Last year, she could handle 200m. This year she can only handle 150m. A lot of athletes had Covid but Hima had it severely. She was there for two months on the bed. Still she has a lot of coughing but she is a fighter.”

Soft bones

Another athlete struggling with illness is Dharun Ayyasamy, the national record holder in the men’s 400m hurdles.

“Dharun is a very unlucky person. It is not a disease but his bones are so soft and he always suffers from injuries. Two days ago, he got fever and is currently on the bed with 102 degrees,” Galina says.

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However, there has been some good news recently with India clocking good timings during the International Sprint & Relay Cup at the Ataturk University Stadium in Erzurum, Turkey. “We didn’t have enough competition. We had our only competition in Erzurum and that is it. That is definitely not enough. Everybody did well. First winner clocked 45.83 (Tom Noah Nirmal), then 46.01 (Arokia), 46.04 (Muhammed Ajmal Variyathodi), 46.05 (Pandi Naganathan), 46.42 (Muhammed Anas Yahiya). Six people so close and back-to-back. Two people, the strongest ones, Amoj (Jacob) and Rajesh, didn’t even compete. Rajesh slipped in the bus and broke his arm.”

Galina is also thrilled with Dhana Lakshmi’s recent showing. In Chennai, she will be competing in a strong field comprising Kiran Pahal, Priya Mohan, junior national champion Rupal Choudhary and Jisna Mathew. “Dhana Lakshmi is a very talented girl. A few weeks ago, we competed in Erzurum, Turkey, and the wind there was -4.3m/s. Minus! Strong winds. And she clocked 11.26. Can you imagine?” To put matters to perspective, 11.26 seconds in 100m is the fastest recorded timing after Dutee Chand.

As things stand, Galina wants to at least lead the team into the finals of the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games. She says she prefers Arokia to run the second leg in the relay because of his experience among other factors. She says, “We will have a lot of tests during this period of time and assign everybody in the team of six a number – 1 to 6. After that, we will be discussing who will be running what leg. The first leg has to be a good lead-off. The second leg, that is 200m, I want Arokia to do that because he used to run 800m and he has experience in this. Amoj also has experience but I cannot put him there if he is not completely healthy. He has to be the anchor. This is my opinion. But I also have to take into consideration what the guys think and do.”