When she crossed the finish line in the women’s 400m hurdles race at the Indian Grand Prix at Chandigarh’s sector 7 Sports Complex on Monday evening, Vithya Ramraj was so far in front of the rest of the field that she had time not just to catch her breathe but also to start looking at the digital scoreboard to see what she had clocked, by the time the remainder of the pack came in behind her.
55.43, it would finally show against her name.
Vithya says the moment was a bittersweet one. Although she had just won her second gold of the competition – she’d previously won the women’s 400m with the third fastest time recorded by an Indian this season (52.40) a day before – and improved her previous personal best of 56.01 by over half a second in the 400m hurdles, she had fallen just short of an eclipsing another mark of far greater significance.
She was hoping to finish faster than 55.42 seconds. That mark -- India’s national record in the women’s 400m hurdles -- is one of the most iconic numbers in Indian track and field history. Set by PT Usha in the final of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where she finished 4th, it is the longest-standing record in Indian women’s track and field history. Now nearly four decades old, it’s 15 years older than the 24-year-old Vithya herself.
“I was both happy and sad after the race. I’m sad that I came so close to the record but I couldn’t break it. But I’m a little happy also. When people see my name, it will be next to PT Usha ma’am,” she tells Sportstar.
Right next to Usha and closer than anyone’s ever been in fact. In 39 years, no one had come within a half second of Usha’s milestone until Monday when Vithya finished just a hundredth of a second short in what is a relatively minor competition in the Indian athletics calendar.
Few doubt that Usha’s record will eventually be in Vithya’s name.
While she will likely go on to become the best athlete of her generation in this event, Vithya didn’t always think she was going to be a 400m hurdler. The daughter of a tempo driver and a homemaker in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, she and her twin sister Nithya got their first taste of sport when they played hockey at school. Encouraged by the PT (physical training) teacher to pursue sports as a way of making a career, they won admission to the Erode Girls Sports school when they were in 7th class.
There the two would specialise in athletics. But while Nithya would go on to excel in the shorter sprints– she made the final of the Asian Championships in the 100m hurdles in August and will be representing India in the 100m hurdles at the Asian Games, Vithya would train in the quarter mile and start competing in the hurdles over that distance in 2018
The 400m race is considered one of the toughest sprint races and Vithya admits she wasn’t always an eager 400m runner. She didn’t enjoy the intensity of the training, wasn’t sure if she wanted to specialise in the flat 400m sprint and had doubts over her stamina over the distance.
“The 400m race is one of the hardest sprints to do. I also didn’t have the endurance I needed. During the race, I would always do well in the first 300m of the race but I never had any energy in the last 100m. There were so many races where I led until the final turn and then was overtaken by other runners. I was also not sure which event I should specialise in. I was a 400m runner but a lot of coaches told me I should focus on the 400m hurdles because I had a better chance of winning a medal there,” she says.
Change of mindset
Things would change in 2021 after she began training with Nehpal Singh Rathore. Rajasthan-born but Tamil Nadu-raised Nehpal had been a sprinter who had both trained alongside and coached Nithya Ramraj. He currently coaches at Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. Although her personal best in the 400m (54.48) and the 400m hurdles (59.01) were very modest at that point, the 25-year-old Nehpal felt the wiry 164cm tall Vithya had plenty of potential. “She obviously had talent but what I was looking for was will power. If you are hard working I can do something with you. She may not have believed it but when I started to work with her I told Vithya ‘you will break PT Usha’s record,” he says.
When he learned Vithya was uncertain about her endurance, Nehpal says he made her work even harder to improve that weak spot. “At the start, she was a little upset with my training. She was confused about whether to run the 400m or the 400m hurdles and I felt she should do both. I would ask what parts of training don’t you really like. And she said she didn’t like doing repetitions of 300m sprints and 500m runs. And I only made her run that. She really didn’t like that. She was very upset with my training at the start but eventually her fear broke and after that she got confident,” says Nehpal.
Vithya remembers how hard it was to adapt to Nehpal’s plans.“Every week I would be given a target I had to accomplish in my training. If I couldn’t I would have to repeat the same thing till I got it. There was a time where I repeated the same training for seven weeks. I remember I was vomiting each day because the training was so hard. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t think I should stop competing. Every day I would cry thinking about how hard it was going to be,” she says.
It was hard but the gains in endurance would be worth it. In September 2021, Vithya had her breakout competition when she won gold in the 400m, the 400m hurdles as well as the 4x400m mixed relay at the National Open Championships in Warrangal.
Although she was expected to be the next top 400m runner in India, Vithya wouldn’t progress as rapidly at the national camp and a year later decided to return to Chennai to train with Nehpal. “I felt a little lost at the national camp. After (chief coach) Galina (Bukharina) left in November last year, I also decided to leave. At the national camp, the coaches have to work with multiple athletes. But I felt I needed individual attention that I was getting in Chennai,” she says.
It was a difficult call since, by training individually, she no longer benefited from having her diet, equipment and training expenses taken care of the way they had been at the national camp. Furthermore as per the Athletics Federation of India’s policy, Vithya wouldn’t be allowed to represent India in the relay if she was not part of the national camp.
Money was tight and Vithya didn’t (and still doesn’t) have any sponsors. Eventually with Nithya contributing a part of her salary and Vithya paying the rest from her own pocket, she would rent a room in Chennai’s Nungambakkam so that she could be near her training venue. The gamble would be worth it.
People who have been following Vithya’s career wouldn’t have been taken by surprise by her performance at the Indian Grand Prix. Over the course of a year, she’s steadily been posting impressive timings in the 400m hurdles but also the 400m.
She won gold in the 400m hurdles at last November’s National Games with a time of 56.67m, clocked 57.51 to win gold at the Federation Cup in Ranchi in May and improved with a personal best of 56.01 at the Open Nationals in June this year. In the flat 400m race, Vithya went from running a 53.32 at the Federation Cup to a personal best of 52.43 at the Open Nationals before improving that PB even further in Chandigarh.
The recent results would see Vithya called back to the national camp. Although she’s returned, she still follows the training plan laid out by Nehpal who continues to coach her over whatsapp and video calls.
What’s particularly impressive about Vithya’s performances in the 400m hurdles is the fact that she was running multiple races in the same competition. At the Open Nationals for instance, she ran three races in the 400m (where she would eventually win bronze), two races in the 400m hurdles and another in the women’s 4x400m relay.
Finding a challenger
Indeed coach Nehpal believes Vithya could probably have broken Usha’s record in Bhubaneswar itself if she hadn’t been tired out by running five full tilt races in the competition. Despite that both he and Vithya insists she will continue to run both races. “The 400m hurdles is my main event but the 400m remains my priority. If I do well in the 400m, it will help me in the hurdles too,” she says.
Indeed even as Vithya’s got better in the 400m, she found the 400 hurdles a lot easier too. “The 400m race is hard because it’s a flat out sprint from start to finish. But in the 400 hurdles, Vithya knows she has to take 16 strides between each hurdle. So getting the right rhythm is more important than just running fast. For her the 400m hurdles is something she has a lot of fun in running,” says sister Nithya.
While the Vithya wasn’t particularly fatigued at the Indian Grand Prix, Nehpal says there was a different challenge she faced running the 400m hurdles in Chandigarh, one that he can’t have any solution for. “Right now Vithya is so much stronger than anyone else in India that she has to push herself throughout the race. After four hurdles she was already in front of everyone. If you see her race (in Chandigarh) she was very slow in the first couple of hurdles and then over the 7th and 8th hurdles (the 400m hurdles has a total of 10 hurdles in all). If she had been pushing hard through those jumps she would probably be at least half a second faster. But the problem is that you need someone who can pull you forward. When you are running by yourself, it’s much harder,” he says.
That competition Nehpal hopes Vithya will benefit from will likely come at the Asian Games. Vithya’s officially part of the Indian contingent in the 400m hurdles (although her timings in the 400m might see her drafted into the relay squads as well). Vithya will have the second fastest season’s best amongst contenders at her event and will be expected to make the podium, but she will be a distinct underdog against Kemi Adekoya who will be representing Bahrain. The Nigerian born Adekoya holds the Asian record of 53.09 that she clocked en route to a 4th place finish at the World Championships in Budapest.
It’s not going to be easy to try and step up against Adekoya but Vithya is already looking up to the challenge. “I’m a little nervous about how it’s going to be when I compete against her but I’m also excited. I want to see what it’s like,” she says.
Which is why despite coming as close as she did, Vithya says perhaps it’s a good thing she didn’t actually claim one of the most iconic marks in Indian athletics. “Right now I’m even more motivated to do well at the Asian Games. I’ve come close to the national record but I haven’t broken it yet. What I’ve done isn’t any great achievement. I hope I can break the record at the Asian Games,” she says.
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