Priya Mohan: Karnataka's emerging track and field queen

Priya Mohan, 16, has set the track on fire with her performances in the Junior National athletics championships last month where she finished with three gold medals.

Karnataka athlete Priya Mohan, who won three gold medals at the 35th Junior Nationals in Guntur.   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

It was impossible to ignore Priya Mohan’s display at the Junior National athletics championships in Guntur earlier this month. The 16-year-old from Tumkur was one of Karnataka’s stars at the meet, winning the U-18 girls' 200m and 400m races. She finished the event with three gold medals, also having helped Karnataka to victory and a new meet record in the medley relay with a scorching anchor leg.

"I could have gone faster," says Priya, when asked of her twin individual golds. She clocked 24.49s in the 200m and 55.27 in the 400, with the heat in Guntur a definite factor. Those times were much slower than her personal best in both events, set at the Junior Federation Cup (U-20) in September. Back then, she had clocked times of 24.27 and 53.62, smashing the existing State record in both events.

It has been a dramatic rise for Priya, who only began serious training last October, when she was spotted by coach Arjun Ajay at the ICSE national schools' meet in Pune. "She was doing 1:03.5 (in the 400m) without training. I felt we could cut at least seven seconds with proper training," says Arjun. "Her back was stiff. She used to bend a lot. We worked on her upper body strength and flexibility."

By February 2019, she was clocking 55.69, winning gold at the Youth Nationals in Raipur. That saw her make the cut for the 3rd Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Hong Kong, where she narrowly missed out on the bronze (56.46).

READ | Dutee Chand named in TIME 100 Next list

In the summer, she and Ajay set up camp in Wellington, near Ooty, training at an altitude of 1800m for 40 days. By September, she had dropped three more seconds, turning up for the Junior Federation Cup in Tiruvannamalai in the peak of form. "She is one of the most dedicated students I have had," says Ajay. "If she's not able to train for some reason, she starts crying."

Both coach and pupil are aware that from this stage, the improvement in time won't be as dramatic; the seconds will not drop at the same rate. But Ajay is confident that Priya, a student of the city's Mount Carmel college, is capable of running a sub-51 quarter-mile in the near future. “She has it in her,” he says. “She trains with the boys at my club because we don’t have girls who can push her.”

Priya — whose father, H.A. Mohan, is a judge in the office of the Lokayukta and mother, Chandra Kala, is a former kho-kho player — has lofty goals herself. "I want to compete in the IAAF World U-20 Championships next year," she says. "I didn't imagine that I would come this far. But there is a lot more work to do. I have many more dreams.”