As Maharashtra’s Sanjivani Baburao Jadhav crossed the finish line at 33:16.43s to take the women’s 10,000m gold at the 61st National Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships in Chennai on Friday, she kneeled down on the track and mumbled something under her breath.

“I offered a prayer when I finished first. God has been there with me,” she said.

The past few years, however, have been very difficult for the 25-year-old. The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) had handed her a two-year suspension in July 2019 for testing positive for probenecid, a banned substance. The doping ban, which Sanjivani believes was due to contaminants in her Ayurvedic medicines, saw her lose her 10,000m Asian championships bronze medal.

“I became mentally disturbed. I didn’t intentionally do anything but don’t know how the substance got into my system. But the federation officials asked me not to worry. They believed in me. My coaches, relatives, mother and father made me understand that although we may be flying high at one point of time, life will bring us down sometimes. These incidents do happen. But we move on. I listened to them and kept training.”

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To make matters worse, an unprecedented pandemic ravaged the world and she lost her supportive father to COVID-19 last year. That hit the family like a truck. “My father was a teacher. I think he got the virus because he used to go and check exam papers. I saw everybody in my family getting admitted to the hospital with my own eyes,” she says, only barely managing to stay in control of her emotions.

The situation, however, is a bit stable now with her brother taking over most of the responsibilities and egging her on. “My family provides me with all the confidence I need,” Sanjivani says. In her only other 10,000m race this year at the National Federation Cup in April, she clocked her personal best timing of 33:13.07s.

Tougher competition needed

Although she is quite a few minutes off the qualification standard for the upcoming Commonwealth Games (31:00.00s) in Birmingham and World Athletics Championships (31:25.00s) in Oregon, Sanjivani believes she is made for the bigger events. However, before that, she’d need a few changes to be implemented.

“I think I have the range in me to meet the qualifying standard of CWG or the Worlds. But I need to race against a good field and face tough competition. For now, it is a no-contest. As you can see, I have led everybody by a lap or sometimes two.” Although Prajakta Godbole (2nd, 33:59.34s), who belongs to her own State, was breathing down her neck during the initial laps, Sanjivani pulled away from the rest of the field later with considerable ease.

She believes she could do better with someone setting the pace. She said, “Actually, the competition used to be tighter when (L) Surya didi used to be around. Then we would each be interchanging leads during various laps. Now there is nobody to match my speed so pacing and pushing myself becomes a bit difficult.”

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) is also supposedly thinking of providing her more international exposure. An excited Sanjivani says, “When I get an international competition, I can do better. The federation is planning to send me abroad so that I can improve my timing and do better in my competitions. The contest is fiercer there and even the climate is conducive. Everything...even the track outside is better. In India, a good pacer (pace-setter) will help. Then I can pace myself better through laps. Except that, we all get good facilities and a proper diet at the camp.”