29.92 seconds. That’s the official time recorded for Jyothi Yarraji over the women’s 100 metres hurdles at the Inter State Championships in Chennai. It’s a terrible time for a beginner in the race, let alone for the fastest woman in the country in the event. The 22-year-old was one of the athletes to watch out for in Chennai earlier in June and prospectively for the Commonwealth Games in a month’s time. Holding the national record of 13.04 seconds, after having broken it three times in the last month, she looked to be on pace to get another on the track at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
She got off to a strong start, powering ahead of the rest of the field. By the sixth of the ten 33-inch-tall hurdles in the race, she was a good five metres in front of everyone and pulling away. It was all going to plan until it wasn’t. Jyothi clipped the seventh hurdle, then knocked over the eighth. As she struggled to regain her balance, she lost her momentum. Even as the rest of the field ran past her, Jyothi smashed into the last barrier and tumbled to the ground. Eventually, covered in scratches and bruises, she limped over the finish line. To add insult to injury, her timing was also recorded.
After she cried out the disappointment of the finish, Jyothi took the loss on her chin. “I keep saying to myself it’s a good time. It’s a good time because you learned something,” she says.
It’s a perspective that Jyothi uses a lot. Stepping out of her comfort zone, while uncomfortable, is often a useful learning experience. And it’s one that has — apart from the one blip in Chennai — seen her become one of the most promising Indian athletes of this generation.
Jyothi had to make those tough calls multiple times in her career. Just take for instance her decision to pursue athletics.
She was in the 10th class when she first thought of becoming an athlete. At that time, it was a ludicrous ambition for a poor girl in Vishakapatnam. At least that’s what she thought at that time. “My father is a security guard and my mother is a cleaner in hospitals. I’d always been told the path to come out of that was through studies. When it came to sports, I had no knowledge of how to start. That’s why I started only in Class 10. I got into it only because my physical education teacher told me I should try it out,” she recalls. “I thought that made sense too. In studies, everyone can become a doctor but not everyone can become a big athlete,” she recalls thinking. Running gave her a sense of freedom. “I used to feel good when I started running. It made me feel like I didn’t have time to waste. It made me feel that I was doing something important,” she says.
A natural athlete
Long-limbed and feather-light on her feet, Jyothi was undeniably a natural athlete. Sprinting in cheap jogging shoes – since her family couldn’t afford spikes – she won a gold in the 100m at her first State meet just a few months into formal training. But even that talent was seemingly not enough.
“I used to feel good when I started running. It made me feel like I didn’t have time to waste. It made me feel that I was doing something important”Jyothi Yarraji
Not everyone liked what she did. “I probably would not have been an athlete if it weren’t for my mother. When I started running, my neighbours would talk all the time. They would ask: ‘Why are you are sending this girl to run outside? Why is she running in knickers and a banian? Why is she talking to boys?’ But my mother never listened,” she says. It wasn’t just the neighbours and it wasn’t just words. There was opposition inside her home itself. “My brother also told me to stop sports. Once when I wanted to go for trials at the Sports Authority of India academy in Hyderabad, he hit me because he thought I was hurting the family’s reputation,” she says.
That was another instance of Jyothi refusing to take the easy way out. Not willing to give up running, Jyothi dug in. “I couldn’t give up. I begged my mother. I told her ‘Just give me one chance’. Finally, my brother also agreed. He understood that I was mad about running. I wasn’t going to give it up,” she recalls.
It was in Hyderabad that Jyothi would get the support — diet, training and even running spikes — she needed as an athlete to improve. She went from fourth place at the U-18 Nationals in Coimbatore in 2016 to third at the U-20 Nationals in 2018 and then finally a gold at her first senior tournament – the Inter State Championships in 2019. A year later, she ran a 13.03-second race at the Inter-University Championships. It was much quicker than the then 18-year national record of 13.38 seconds. Jyothi’s time would not be ratified though since there was no dope testing at the venue.
Jyothi would go past the national record once more at the Federation Cup this year, but it did not count because of a tailwind just over the legal limit. She clocked 13.09 seconds in this race.
Despite the setbacks, it was clear that whatever she was doing was working. She had been training with James Hillier, the head coach at Reliance Odisha Athletics High Performance Centre at the Reliance Foundation. Hillier clearly saw her as one of the country’s top prospects, which is why in March this year, he asked Jyothi if she wanted to train overseas in Europe.
That would be another step outside her comfort zone.
“I wasn’t excited about going out at first. I was comfortable here in India. Everything was good here. Even to buy food, I will go once a month. This is the only world I knew,” she says. “Suddenly, I thought if I go out, how would I survive? I was scared. Would I be able to adjust? I wasn’t sure if I would be able to manage in that climate. I was thinking what if I one day discover in Europe that I’m not actually good. I had all of that in my mind. But I knew I had to go,” Jyothi says. The experience would prove to be an eye-opener. Jyothi set three successive national records in Europe. Far more significant she says was the way she saw her self-confidence grow.
“That experience opened my eyes in so many ways. I watched so many athletes who were running sub-13 second races. I saw the way they trained in the gym. I saw what they ate,” she says.
Jyothi learned to cook as well. She went from being someone who waited for a canteen to provide three meals a day to someone who was able to whip up pasta and fried rice that her team-mates craved.
And then there was the competition. “I’ve never competed in as many continuous competitions as I did in Europe. Sometimes I’d compete within two-three days of a competition. Randomly coach would say we have one competition and I’d get ready for it. Two years ago I might have thought, ‘Oh baba, such a long journey.’ But now I’ve got used to it. I’ve travelled for 16 hours, 24 hours and even 32 hours. I’ve travelled by boat and cars and trains and planes. I thought I would feel tired but I was strong,” she says.
And Jyothi’s getting stronger too. “When I first started working with coach James, I was very weak. My height-to-weight ratio was very bad. I was 175 cm and weighed just 49kg. I didn’t even lift much weight. I couldn’t even do an overhead squat of 20 kilos. Now I’m 51kg. I can do overhead squats of 45kg and I’m doing quarter squats of 150kg. But I want to get heavier. I want to be 56kg. I’m trying very hard but it’s not easy,” she says.
Coach Hillier can see this improvement happening too. “She’s getting better with every race. She has shown improvement across all the parameters — her speed has improved by 10-12 per cent since she joined us, and some of her lifts [weight training] have increased by over 150 per cent,” says Hillier.
Jyothi’s goal this season is to run a sub-13 second race. It’s a mental barrier and one few doubt she will cross. That was probably her goal at the Inter-State Championships in Chennai.
Perhaps if she had played it safe, Jyothi might have had something to show for her efforts. The gold was eventually won with a time of 13.62 seconds — a time Jyothi had beaten in her last eight races. But that’s not the mentality that’s got her as far as it has. Stretching herself a little bit more than she was ready for, Jyothi clipped the hurdle and fell. But it’s not a stumble that will be permanent. “She’ll live to fight another day,” says her coach.
Jyothi, though, is even more confident. “I want to break the 13-second barrier. It might take me a few months or even a year. It’s not going to be easy. But nothing that is good is easy. But once I decide to do something, I won’t compromise,” she says.
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