Five kilometres into the women’s 20km race walk event at the National Games in Gandhinagar on Friday, Munita Prajapati knew she had made a big mistake. Instead of stepping on the cement track at IIT Gandhinagar with the ball of her left foot, she stubbed her big toe.
“Immediately, I knew I had hurt myself. Pagal jaise dard kiya (It hurt like crazy). I could feel that the nail had come off,” the Uttar Pradesh athlete remembers thinking. By the end of the race, Munita’s ripped toenail was a bright shade of blue.
It never crossed the 20-year-old’s mind, however, to throw in the towel. She led all the way from the start before crossing the finish line to win gold with a new National Games record of 1:38:20, nearly three minutes clear of Mansi Negi of Uttarakhand who finished second. Race done, she finally get her toe tightly bandaged in white gauze.
“Last year, during a selection trial for the junior world championships, I picked up a shin pain in my left leg. I was part of the leading group, but gave up that race. I felt really bad because I missed the chance to compete in an international event. After that, I vowed I would never quit a race no matter how much it hurt,” she says.
There was another reason that Munita was willing to fight through the pain. A few days earlier, the Uttar Pradesh government announced a prize money of ₹6 lakh for its athletes who win gold at the National Games. This win promises to be a financial windfall for her.
Munita who grew up in Sahwajpur – some 15 km from Varanasi – is not from a privileged background. Her father, Birju Prajapati, used to work as an electrician in Mumbai. The family’s financial situation became desperate in 2011 when he suffered an electrical shock at work. “He lost many fingers on his hand and a toe on his foot. He had to come back home and was unable to work. He was doing nothing for two years. Now, he works as a construction worker,” says Munita, who has two elder sisters and a younger brother.
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So, in 2016, when her elder sister Pooja suggested she take up sports, it wasn’t purely out of a love for the game. It was because the game seemed a chance to get a government job and secure the family’s finances.
Sahwajpur has a tradition of producing runners looking to clear the physical exams for the army. But back in 2016, when Munita went to coach Nirbhay Pal – who eventually joined the army, he told her to take up race walking. “I thought I should be a runner. I used to run for fun. I did not even understand what race walking was. It looked so strange. But he insisted,” she says.
The choice to pick up the then unfamiliar sport would pay off. Munita would win gold medals at the district level, then be picked in a selection trial for the Sports Authority of India in Bhopal. Crucially, she would go on to win a gold medal at the 2018 Khelo India Games. “I got a scholarship of ₹10,000 a month because of that medal. That was very important for me. I was able to contribute to my family and also buy some things I needed,” she says.
She continued to build on her performance at the Khelo India Games, going on to win the gold medal and set a new national record of 47:53:58 in the women’s 10km race walk at the Junior National Championships in 2021. That would have allowed her to compete at her first Junior World Championships but for the injury she picked up at the selection trial..
It was around that time that Munita decided to shift training base to Bangalore under former two-time-Olympian Gurmeet Singh, who has turned to coaching. Singh, a former Indian men’s 20km race walk record holder, rates her very highly. “I knew within the first training session that I wanted to work with her. She is very hard working and has worked a lot on her technique. She has made a lot of improvement. She had a habit of crossing her legs during her stride and it cost her energy and wasted time. Her stride length was also very long. We have reduced it a lot,” says Singh.
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In the time Munita has been working with Singh, her performance has steadily improved. After missing out on the Junior World Championships, she finally competed in her first international event – the racewalking World Cup in Muscat earlier this year. Partnering Commonwealth Games silver medallist Priyanka Goswami and Bhawna Jat, she won bronze in the team event.
Munita clocked just an average 1:45:03 in Muscat, but improved that to 1:40:03 in the Indian Race Walking Championships in Ranchi a month later. Coach Singh is optimistic. “If she keep improving and working hard, she has very good potential to be clocking less than 1:30:00 (one hour and thirty minutes). She is one of the best junior racewalkers coming up now,” he says.
He is convinced about Munita’s talent and grit, but is grappling with a challenge the athlete poses. “Munita is very lean. She is about 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighs only around 41kg. And some days, she is at 39kg. She did not always have the best nutrition as a child and because of that there is a lot of stress on her joints. We are trying to get her to add a couple of kilos at least,” he says.
Food supplements aren’t cheap and neither is her kit. Race walkers use specialised shoes with a hard sole on the heel. “It’s really hard to get them in India,” says Munita. “We usually have to ask someone who is travelling abroad to get them for us. And they are expensive. It costs ₹12,000 to ₹14,000 to get a pair and one pair only lasts about two or three competitions because the heel gets worn out very quickly. And, I don’t have a job. I still have to manage with only the ₹10,000 I get as scholarship. I can’t ask my family for funds any more.”
With the National Games gold medal, Munita is hoping she might have done enough to get a job or, at the very least, get the state government prize money. “When I started my career in athletics, it was because my sister thought I would get a job. But the more I competed, [the more] my goals changed. Now, my goal is to go to the Olympics. That is my dream. If I get a job, it would not be my final goal, but it will allow me to chase my dream. If I get a job or the prize money, I will be able to focus completely on my training. I know I have the potential to perform at the international level,” she says.
Experience pays off in dramatic fashion
If 20-year-old Munita showed the potential of youth, 38-year-old Devender Singh showed the value of experience in the men’s 20km race walk competition. Devender, representing Services, seemed to have been pipped to second place with about 50 metres when 21-year-old Suraj Panwar of Uttarakhand went past him in the final turn. Suraj didn’t seal the win and coasted towards the finish line, seemingly assured of the win.
However, in a last gasp effort, Devender overtook his younger rival to win in a photo finish. While both walkers recorded identical times of 1:26:25, the photo finish revealed that while Suraj had clocked 1:26:24.10, Devender had dipped over the finish line 5/1000th of a second earlier with a time of 1:26:24.05.
“Even though he was leading almost at the end, I noticed he wasn’t extending his lead. I knew then that I had a chance. If he was a little more experienced, he would have pushed himself all the way to the end. Suraj will learn that with time,” Devender would say later.