The first thing coach James Hillier did after Jyothi Yarraji crossed the finish line at the women's 100m hurdles race at the Cyprus international athletics meet in Limassol on Tuesday evening was to check the wind speed timing.
“It was quite a still evening but I just wanted to make sure everything was legal all the same,” he says. The wind measurement came out at just around .1m/s. A legal time. Hillier breathed a sigh of relief, for finally Yarraji, who won gold in Cyprus with a time of 13.23s had also secured the national record.
Twice earlier, the 22-year-old from Vishakapatanam in Andhra Pradesh had run under the old national record of 13.38s set 20 years back by Odisha's Anuradha Biswal.
On both occasions though the record was invalidated. The first time was back in 2020 when Yarraji had run a blistering 13.03 seconds to win the All India Inter-University Athletics Championships in Moodbidri. The record was not counted though because the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) did not test her at the championships and there was no technical delegate from Athletics Federation of India (AFI) at the event. A dope test and an AFI technical delegate as observer at a meet is mandatory for records set in India to be ratified.
Last month, Yarraji again would have thought she had the record after clocking a time of 13.08 seconds in the Federation Cup in Kozhikode, but was denied the National Record due to a tailwind assistance of +2.1m/s – just over the acceptable limit of +2m/s.
Hillier had tried his best to comfort Yarraji even as she had burst into tears in his arms after the race in Kozhikode.“I tried to explain to her that on both occasions she had only been denied by bad luck,” says Hillier, the head coach at the Reliance Foundation High Performance Center in Bhubhaneswar, where Yarraji has been training for the past couple of years.
“And that was a good thing because luck tends to average out over a career. So if she had had two cases of bad luck, she was up for some good luck eventually,” says Hillier.
Competing in her first international race in Europe though, Yarraji – if only for the first fractions of seconds of the race -- would have felt she had another spell of misfortune. “In India, they use a manual gun to start the race but in Europe they use an electronic starter. I was not familiar with the sound it makes so I didn’t realise when the race had started. I only started running when I saw the other athletes start,” says Yarraji.
Indeed Yarraji was the slowest out of the blocks with a reaction time of .243 seconds – almost .1 seconds – a lifetime in the sprint events – slower than the Natalia Christofi, the eventual silver medalist. “It was probably the worst start of her career. But she didn’t let it get to her. She kept her nerves in control and once she found her rhythm she picked up her pace and finished in front. The way she kept calm was very good to see,” says Hillier.
Hillier himself had few doubts that Yarraji would get the record. “Even though Jyothi was denied the record twice, It was simply a matter of time for her to get it,” he says.
Indeed just a few hours after the results of her race in Cyprus was confirmed, the AFI too announced the record was broken. The final confirmation came once Anuradha, the erstwhile national record holder, sent a message to Yarraji herself congratulating her for finally erasing her mark.
For Yarraji herself, the record which had once reduced her to tears, is now firmly in her rear view mirror. It had once been a huge motivation for a girl, who comes from humble backgrounds. “My father works as a security guard and my mother works as a part-time cleaner at a hospital. But she had always encouraged me to pursue athletics. When I started out it was a dream to set a national record,” Jyothi had once said.
But while she’s messaged her mother about her achievement, she’s looking to bigger things. “It’s good that I broke the record but I was actually a little disappointed that I couldn’t break the 13-second barrier. That was what I was hoping to do. I hope I will be able to get there and do well at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships,” she says.