Annu Rani: Shifting gear with the spear

Annu Rani is the Asian silver medallist, the country’s first female javelin thrower to make the final at the World Championships in Doha last year where she finished eighth, bettering hew own national record (62.43m).

“I chose javelin as I thought it was very light. But the first time I threw it, I fell down. And I realised that though the implement was very light, technically the event was very difficult,” says Annu Rani.   -  AFP

When Annu Rani first began to throw the javelin, it was virtually a secret affair. She did not want her dad Amarpal or her folks to know that she was keen on sport, so she kept hurling the spear quietly in her dad’s land at Bahadurpur, a village some 15km from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.

“We don’t have a ground in our village and since my father is a farmer, I used to train in his land. But nobody in my family knew about it, I used to train alone. Even when I took part in competitions at school, nobody at home knew about it,” says Rani from the national camp in Patiala.

“And when I came back with gold medals from school meets, my dad used to say, ‘what are you doing? Who told you to do sport?’ I was very scared... I was around 15 then. But one day, my coach told my dad to allow me to continue with sport, that I could be a very good athlete.”

Amarpal supported his daughter after that, and he made a lot of sacrifices to help her. Still, life was not easy for the young girl.

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“We did not have much money and it was difficult to buy shoes and clothes and manage travel. There were times when I had to sleep on the floor in trains while going for competitions,” says the 28-year-old.

Rani was a discus thrower and shot putter when she began athletics. But one day, her school’s physical education teacher Dharampal Singh advised her that if she wanted to do well in big meets she should focus on one event.

“I chose javelin as I thought it was very light. But the first time I threw it, I fell down. And I realised that though the implement was very light, technically the event was very difficult.”

Rani has come a long way since those dusty days in Bahadurpur. She is now the Asian silver medallist, the country’s first female javelin thrower to make the final at the World Championships in Doha last year where she finished eighth, bettering hew own national record (62.43m).

Annu Rani receives the Sportswoman of the Year Award (Track & Field) from Adielle Sumariwalla during the Sportstar Aces Awards 2020 function at Hotel Trident in Mumbai in January 2020.   -  Vijay Soneji

 

The Doha Worlds were very memorable, they also helped her break some mental barriers and made her realise that she had it in her to make it big.

“I was very happy because I had finished fifth (overall) in the qualifying round and felt I could win a medal for my country. I was very aggressive in the final, didn’t concentrate on my technique, committed mistakes and finished eighth (with 61.12m),” she says.

“It was also the first time I was throwing on two successive days in a competition, having the qualifying round one day and the final the next day, so I had no experience. And my elbow was paining, so I had to take painkillers.”

Incidentally, the Czech Republic’s Barbora Spotakova, the former two-time Olympic champion and the world record-holder with 72.28m, finished behind Rani in the ninth spot with 59.87m while Croatia’s Olympic gold medallist Sara Kolak was one rung ahead of the Indian in seventh (62.28m) in the final.

The Worlds experience has made Rani stronger and confident.

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Her personal best is more than one and half metres behind the qualification standard for next year’s Tokyo Olympics and despite the global pandemic threatening to mess up this year’s competitions leaving her with just about three and half months to make the cut, she is not worried.

“I have enough time and I’m in good form too. Now, my training is going very well, I’ve improved in all areas. I think I will qualify for Tokyo in the first competition next year,” says the Railway athlete.

After consistently crossing 60m last year, Rani is now ranked 12th in the world and even if she is unable to make the Tokyo entry standard of 64m, if she stays steady in the 60-plus range next year her world ranking should see her through.

But Rani wants to get her Tokyo ticket through the qualification route.

“I'm not looking at my world ranking, I want to achieve the qualification standard,” she says.

In fact, she is thinking big and she says that her coach German Uwe Hohn, once the world record holder and the only man to cross 100m before the javelin was modified to make it safe for everybody, feels there is much scope for improvement.

“My coach has been working with me, he knows me well, he says I’m capable of throwing 70m some day,” reveals Rani.

The 70m shock!

Did that shock her?

“No, I was not shocked... my dream is very high, very big, I want to win an Olympic medal and for that I may have to do 70m. I believe I can do that one day,” says Rani.

Only four women in history — Barbora Spotakova (72.28m), Cuban Olisdeilys Menendez (71.70), Russian Mariya Abakumova (70.53) and German Christina Obergfoll (70.20) — have gone past 70m. For sure, Rani’s dreams appear to be completely out of this world.

Well, that could also be a trick by Hohn to motivate the star and strengthen her mind so that she would not choke as she attempts 65m or more but it appears to have helped. Just the fact that she believes that she could achieve the target is half the battle won.

“She’s doing good and should throw 65-plus soon. 70m is very far and we need to work first on stability in that 63-65m range before thinking of 70m,” says Hohn, the national coach for javelin throw. “But she is improving and we are happy about that.”

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However, when Hohn took over, it was not easy for Rani.

“The first few weeks, I was confused, I didn’t understand English, didn’t know what he was saying, the training workouts were different but now I’m comfortable.”

She has also worked hard on her English and that made life a lot easier.

“There are many girls at the national camp who speak good English, I tell them to speak to me in English. That has helped, I’m becoming better every day,” she says.

Annu Rani’s favourite pictures are the ones taken with her favourite athlete, Czech Republic’s men’s world record holder (98.48m) Jan Zelezny.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Rani’s favourite pictures are the ones taken with her favourite athlete, the Czech Republic’s men’s world record holder (98.48m) Jan Zelezny. Records have always fascinated her.

“Many years ago, when I saw others breaking national records in competitions, I wanted to know how it felt breaking them. I dreamed of breaking records too. And when I first broke the national record in 2014 in Lucknow, I was so happy,” she says.

“I told myself, ‘you’re doing hard training, you’re very disciplined too, so the rewards will come’.”

When she first came to the national scene, 45m throws were enough to bring gold medals at National championships. Javelin throw has now come a long way, it’s now the No. 1 event in Indian athletics with a world class athlete like Neeraj Chopra, the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games champion and former world junior gold medallist, who appears capable of winning independent India’s first Olympic medal in athletics in Tokyo next year.

“It’s good for us that the sport has improved in such a big way. When I first started doing the nationals, 45 and 46m throws were enough to win gold medals, now we are throwing over 60m. That’s good progress. Neeraj Chopra is very helpful too. And our juniors are very lucky now since they can see everything, including technique, on the internet and pick up things fast.

“I did not have such things back home when I started.”

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Life is very quiet for Rani and because of the coronavirus pandemic, athletes are virtually locked up at the national camp these days.

“Sometimes, it is very boring, I miss home but I know what my goal is. My mother wants me to come home but my dad has advised me to stay here. He has told me to focus on my training, that this break will help me correct mistakes and help me achieve my goals.”

A lot has changed back home at Bahadurpur too.

“Many girls have now taken up sport. They now know what javelin throw is. But they want quick results, they don’t want to be patient, they think javelin throw is easy, they don’t want to train for years,” she says.

They just have to look at Rani’s wonderful journey for all the lessons they need.