Sarita Singh might have won gold in the women’s hammer throw competition at the National Games on Friday evening. But she’s not the centre of attraction for athletes gathering for the medal ceremony at the athletics venue in IIT Gandhinagar. That would be her three-year-old daughter Mahi. Sarita’s compatriots now compete to see who can play with Mahi. They fuss over the adorable toddler.
Mahi, though, has eyes trained on her mother. She clings to her and has to be distracted so that Sarita can go up to the podium to receive her medal. When someone takes her mother’s picture, she gets upset. “When someone comes to take a picture, she doesn’t like it because she thinks I have to go somewhere away from her. This time she doesn’t want to leave my side,” says Sarita.
When the 33-year-old Sarita, who made a throw of 61.03m, has to go to the dope control station a while later, Mahi starts crying. “She doesn’t understand what dope control is. And I can’t explain it to her. She just wonders why mummy is disappearing again,” says Sarita.
Sarita might be India’s best woman hammer thrower but it has come at the cost of missing her daughter’s childhood. Many women athletes have spoken about the challenges of balancing motherhood with their sporting careers. But that doesn’t make it any easier for Sarita.
When Mahi was born in August 2019, Sarita, who had competed and came fifth at the Asian Games the previous year, wasn’t sure she would be competing anymore. It was her husband – the former international racewalker Romit Singh -- who encouraged her to get back to training. “He supported me completely. He said I had the talent to be successful and could perform at the highest level again,” she says.
But a wholehearted focus on training for Sarita wasn’t ever going to be cost-free. “I started training again in 2021, two years after Mahi was born. There was a huge difference in my strength level. I had lost so much power. I couldn’t get the hammer to 40 meters. When that happened, I felt maybe this wasn’t for me. But my husband supported me a lot,” says Sarita, a national record holder in the sport with a throw of 65.25m in 2017.
The biggest support was that Romit and his parents looked after Mahi. Without that, Sarita says there was no way she would have been able to return to the field.
But their backing didn’t mean that there were no barbs. “People can be cruel. I come from a small village near Moradabad. Sometimes people would say ‘what kind of mother is she’. They say ‘why isn’t she spending time with her child’. I have put this to the side. In the past, people would say ‘she can’t have kids, she plays sports.’ Then after I had caesarean surgery to deliver Mahi, they said she can’t do sports. It used to make me feel I had a point to prove,” she says.
Sarita says that while she loves her daughter deeply, her sporting career gave her life meaning. “I’m from a village in Uttar Pradesh where no girls had ever got a job. It was always just marriage and children. I was always different. I wanted to be an international medallist. That was my dream when I was young. When I got a job in the Railways because of my sport, it was as if I had achieved something major. When you are a girl from a village, it’s a huge thing to get a job. It feels like you are respected and you have value,” she says.
Despite her love for the sport, Sarita admits it was hard re-joining the national camp in Patiala in October last year to prepare for the Commonwealth Games. “It was the hardest thing I have done. Much more than training. I was away from Mahi for nearly a year. I was only able to get one day’s leave in the middle to meet her. I used to make video calls, but she would refuse to come for it. If I called, she would ignore it. She didn’t want to see me because she would miss me. So my in-laws would show it to her from a distance. She even began calling her grandmother amma (mom),” recalls Sarita.
Despite all her sacrifices, she would end up outside the medal podium in Birmingham. It was a result that crushed her. “My daughter’s birthday was a few days before my event, and I couldn’t be a part of it. I felt I had given up so much, and still, I didn’t have a medal to show for it. I didn’t eat or come out of my room for two days because it hurt so much,” says Sarita.
The performance at the National Games will go some way to healing that pain. Sarita hadn’t trained much since returning from Birmingham, so the result was a surprise to her as well. “After I returned, there was a function hosted by the Prime Minister. Then we had the inter-railways [competition] that I had to participate in, and after that, I had to bring my stuff back from Patiala because the national camp had ended. I didn’t have any chance to rest or train, so I’m happy I threw as much as I did. Man ko tassalli mili (I feel satisfied) that I was able to throw over 60m. It feels good that I’m in that range still,” she says.
Point to prove
With her daughter present on the ground, Sarita says she had another point to prove. “In my mind, I felt my daughter was here, so I needed to come first. That was on my mind. I wanted to get a gold medal for my daughter. I wanted to show her what her mom does,” she says.
For all that effort, Sarita found out Mahi was more interested in playing with her mom’s accreditation card than the medal. “Everyone likes a medal. Mahi didn’t care about the gold medal. She was just happy being with me,” she says.
That bit of joy will be short-lived. Sarita knows that with an important season in 2023, she will have to go to the national camp again. “My goal for a long time has been to win a medal at the Asian games. That’s been my dream. For that I know I will have to go to Patiala. I know I will have to leave Mahi again. It’s a little scary because I know Mahi will be upset. But I also know I have only two or three years left in my career. Dil pe patthar laga ke karna hoga (I will have to put a stone on my heart and do it). Maybe when she’s older, she will understand.” says Sarita.