Right before the National Games, pole vaulter Rosy Meena Paulraj got a call from national record holder V. S. Surekha. “I spoke to Surekha akka (sister) just before the competition. She said ‘I’ve stood by you so much. Now you must perform well and back it up’,” Paulraj recalls.
A few months earlier Surekha had helped the 25-year-old Paulraj land a trial for a sports quota job with the Indian Railways. A sports quota job is a big deal for Indian athletes as it provides a level of financial security, allowing them to train with lot more freedom.
But there was a problem for Paulraj.
“Normally the Railways don’t hire anyone over the age of 25. Rosy was nearly on the wrong side of that number. Surekha went out of her way to help her for the Railway trials,” says Paulraj’s coach Milber Russell.
Paulraj aced her trial and landed the coveted job.
And at the National Games on Saturday, she did even better as she won the gold medal by clearing a height of 4.20m at the IIT Gandhinagar. That leap was enough to erase Surekha’s own national record of 4.15m, set in 2014.
Tears rolled down Paulraj’s cheeks as she later recounted what the medal and record meant for her. “I’m crying because I’ve been able to prove myself to all those people who didn’t believe in me and justify the belief of all those who did believe in me,” she said.
There were many naysayers, and only a few like Surekha who believed in her.
At 157cm, she is much shorter compared to other pole vault athletes and Paulraj also had a late start to her career at 23. “The biggest problem when you start at that age is that you must work to overcome that fear. That’s very difficult to do when you are already matured. There was nothing about her that was right for pole vault,” recalls coach Milber.
But Paulraj had self-belief and was always interested in sports. Growing up in Cauvery Nagar in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, Paulraj first pursued gymnastics before switching to javelin throw.
She was successful in both. “I was a national level gold medallist in triathlon (a form of gymnastics which features aerobics, floor exercise and the table vault), I also have a silver in the individual table vault – the same event as Dipa Karmakar. I also did javelin throw in class 11. I got a silver medal in the 2012 Kochi junior nationals with a throw of 33m,” she says.
Despite all the early success, she soon lost interest in both sports. “I’m someone who sets goals and wants to achieve them quickly. If I’m interested in something, I’ll focus on it for a year or two and try and succeed in it. After that I lose interest and quickly move on. But I am not going to leave pole vault. I won’t change my mind until I get to the international level. I want to at least represent India at the Olympics,” she says.
She fell in love with pole vault while studying at a college in Madurai but had to delay the pursuit of the sport to finish her studies. She travelled to Chennai in 2019 to finally chase her dreams.
“She was adamant that she could do it,” Milber recalls. “We were lucky that she had a background in gymnastics. She was comfortable being at that height and rotating in the air. That was something she was doing from a very young age.”
However, not many others believed in her. “My aim was always to break the national record. No one believed me when I would tell them. No one helped me at the start,” Paulraj says. “When I first moved from my hometown to Chennai, I didn’t have money. I would give fitness training in the morning and then head for my own training.”
Milber, whose pole vault career was cut short by injury, went out of his way to help Paulraj.
“Almost no one said I could do it. My coach did. Even though I was short, and I was starting late. He said you can do it,” she says. “He had a job as a fitness trainer. But he felt I needed minimum four hours of training and he quit his job to make time for me.”
Her family, too, chipped in. “My parents and my brother have always supported me. My father is a farmer and teaches musical instruments. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he would always help. My brother left his own dreams and used his salary to support my stay in Chennai,” Paulraj says.
Her father continues to support her. “When I was coming to the National Games, I missed my train. I thought it was at 10.30 pm but it was at 10.10 pm. I panicked and called my father. He didn’t think twice and borrowed money and booked a flight ticket,” a proud Paulraj says.
With a Railway job and a few sponsors onboard, Paulraj hopes things will get better for her. “My coach found me a few sponsors. Moorthy sir (M. Shenbagamoorthy) – co-producer of Red Giant Movies (distributors of Ponniyin Selvan 1) – supports me, and I can reach out to him if there are any urgent expenses,” she says.
Her rise has been gradual, and she won a silver medal at the inter-state championships last year and then won her first senior national gold medal at the Federation Cup in Kozhikode this year. While she had cleared a height of 4m there, her coach backed her to excel further. “I know she had the ability to get to 4.20m and maybe 4.30m. I’m happy that she could do 4.20 at the National Games,” Milber says.
With the national record in her name, Paulraj is now looking ahead. “My final goal is the Olympics. But I keep smaller targets as well. The Asian Games is the first. 4.30 is the norm there. I am confident of getting it in the next inter-state or Federation Cup,” she says.