When Rupal Choudhary won gold in the 400m at the U-20 national championships in Nadiad, Gujarat on Friday, she rewarded herself in the way she always does after a win – with a glass of mixed fruit juice. Choudhary clocked a time of 52.48s in Nadiad– the fifth fastest time in India this year. And considering she is not yet 18 years old - few doubt she will clock even faster times and probably become a mainstay in the Indian 400m quartet.
But if the reward for a successfully completed race is a glass of juice, it was a hunger strike that started Rupal’s athletics career.
Girls don’t run in Jainpur, a village about 15 kilometers from Meerut in Western UP. “Ours is a traditional village,” says Rupal’s father Omvir Choudhary, a sugarcane farmer. Rupal though wanted more out of life. In 2016 she decided she wanted to be an athlete.
“I saw the Rio Olympics in 2016. There P V Sindhu and Sakshi Malik had won medals. After that I decided I wanted to become an athlete. I didn’t know how I would become one but I had to do it,” she says.
The only athletics stadium though was in Meerut. And Omvir couldn’t be convinced to let his daughter go there.
“At first he told me he would take me to the stadium but he kept making some excuse or the other to delay it. He probably thought I would lose interest as well,” says Rupal.
But rather than giving up, the then 12-year-old persisted. Finally, in September 2017, after a year of no success, she raised the stakes.
“After a year, I realised my father wasn’t planning on sending me to the stadium. So I decided to do a bhook hartal (hunger strike),” she says.
“At first he thought I’d give up but after three days he realised I was very serious. Only then he decided to take me. Mere zid ke samne unko tekna pada (he had to bend to my will)," she says.
Meerut’s Kailash Prakash Stadium had seen better days. Its synthetic track was in a state of disrepair, the toilets were dirty. For Rupal though, it was exactly where she wanted to be.
“My eyes went big when I first came there. I felt this is what it was like to be an athlete,” she says.
Within a few days, she was spotted by Vishal Saxena. A former national-level 200m gold medallist, Saxena said he thought there was something special about the young girl.
“She had never trained before but she was tall, well-built and had a really good stride length. That is something that you immediately could see,” he says of Rupal, who's one of the taller 400m runners in India at 5'9.
“He would always take me on his motorcycle. But some days if he had work on the farm then I couldn’t go. Those days I’d only cry,” she says.
But for the most part, she would convince her father to let her train. " Mere dil ki ichha thi ki athlete banna tha. India ke liye khelna hai. Aurmain bohot ziddi hun (It was my desire to be an athlete and compete for India. And I’m very stubborn),” she adds.
And when she wanted to travel to her first competition to Visakhapatnam, he accompanied her. While she didn’t medal there, she did win a silver in the 600m at the inter-district nationals in Ranchi the following year.
“When my father saw the medal he was very impressed. After that he started becoming more and more supportive. Now, even if he has very important work, he’ll put that to the side if I have to go and train or compete somewhere. He’s always travelling with me now,” she says.
It’s a sacrifice the father willingly makes now. “It’s not easy. I’m a farmer so it’s not as if I have a lot of money. But my daughter is talented. If I have to eat a little less so she can have a good diet and kit and travel for a competition, then it’s not a big thing,” says Omvir.
Indeed, over the past few years, Rupal has medalled consistently in national age-group tournaments. She took gold in the U-16 nationals in Mangalagiri in 2019 and then had a breakout performance, winning gold in the 400m U-18 nationals in New Delhi with a time of 53.73s in October last year.
But as her performances have started improving, the limitations of working from Meerut have become more apparent.
“The stadium track here is really bad. It’s impossible to do speed training here. You can only do fitness training on the grass,” says coach Saxena.
“Every time I win a national medal, people say that now they will lay a synthetic track but nothing ever has come of it,” says Rupal.
Training on the surface at Meerut has taken its toll on the runner. “You can’t do running workouts on the track. Last year I injured my calf muscle because I was running on the track. After that I stopped running on it,” she says.
Instead, every couple of months before a major competition, Rupal and her coach head to New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to compete on the synthetic track there.
“It’s a very long journey. We have to leave at 4am in the morning to reach the stadium at 6am. We have to travel around 200km every day of training,” Saxena says.
It’s a hectic schedule but Rupal isn’t one to complain. “It’s not easy but if you want to compete with the best in the country you can’t train in dehat (villages). Rupal knows this also. She’s someone who is very disciplined. Her entire life is about athletics,” he adds.
While she’s now amongst the best quartermilers in the country, coach Saxena hopes Rupal can cement her place in the national squad. She has now qualified for the junior world championships (in August this year) and Saxena thinks she will improve on her junior nationals performance at the inter-state championships (beginning on June 10).
“If she maintains this performance, she can make the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games,” says Saxena.
Rupal though is looking even further ahead.
“My dream from the very start was to go to the Olympics and represent India. I’ve just started my senior career now. There is still a long way for me to go. Abhi toh bohot bhook hai (Right now there is a lot of hunger)," she says.