The homecoming

Fighting odds, four unsung athletes challenged existing norms and carved a name for themselves in Incheon.

Written by Nitin Sharma | Published: October 13, 2014 12:09 am
(Top) Manju gets a rousing reception upon her return to her native village in Chandgothi, Churu district of Rajasthan. (Above) at her father’s tea stall. Vijay (left) would do extra shifts to take care of her sporting needs.   (Top) Manju gets a rousing reception upon her return to her native village in Chandgothi, Churu district of Rajasthan. (Above) at her father’s tea stall. Vijay (left) would do extra shifts to take care of her sporting needs.

Name: Manju Bala, 25
Event: Hammer throw
Medal: Silver

Vijay Singh’s tiny tea stall on the Rajgarh-Pilani road, near the main bus stand, has an unusual rush. The offer of free tea, along with sweets, and the sight of the beaming owner attracted a crowd of weary travellers, onlookers and passersby. Vijay, 45, is in a generous mood since this happens to be the “happiest day of his life”. His daughter Manju Bala is returning home after winning the hammer throw silver in Incheon.

Vijay has overseen Manju’s days of struggle and also watched her climb the podium at the Asian Games on television. Now, waiting for her with a smile on his face, he recalls the day it all started. “When Manju was in Class IX, she used to play volleyball. Once she went for a school excursion to Jai Singh Sar village near Bikaner and saw someone hurling a metal ball with a chain attached to it. She was hooked,” says the father. Manju would return home, draw a circle, manage to get a hammer and throw it as far as she could.

Soon Manju was spotted by coach Rajesh Poonia, who spent long hours with the young athlete. He ironed her technique and ensured that her raw power translated into the distance the hammer needed to travel. Manju went on to win a bronze at school nationals, gold at junior nationals and later she finished 4th at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Jakarta. Her senior high came when she stood on the top of the podium at the National Games in Ranchi with a throw of 56.73m in 2011.

Vijay says his is a family of athletes. Manju’s brother, Sandeep Kumar Swami, who is deaf and dumb, won the javelin gold at the nationals for special athletes while younger sister Munish, a budding boxer, had a top-three finish at an all-India tournament recently.

By now Manju has reached the tea stall. The commotion escalates as the father gives her daughter a hug. Manju gets emotional when she says, “Our father never stopped us from choosing a sport. He would take loans from fellow villagers to help us pursue sports. He sent my brother Sandeep to practice at NIS Patiala. When Munish opted for boxing, my father would request bus drivers passing through the village to get her gloves from Jalandhar. When I started, a hammer would cost Rs 800. He would do extra hours at the tea stall to meet the costs. He would leave home early and return late,” recollects the 25-year-old.

Manju says she was lucky to get married into a family that supported her athletics career. “My husband Ramesh Mann is a soldier in the Indian Army. Sometimes he trains with me at 4 am in our village Ladhundha in Jhunjhunu district. At times, my mother-in-law too would accompany us. The villagers would wonder what we were up to, drawing circles in empty fields and throwing a metal ball,” Manju says with a smile.

For all the support she got from her family, Manju now wants to give it all back to them. “When Sandeep won the gold medal at the nationals (for special athletes) last year, it was the biggest moment in our house. He would often accompany us to training. I will get him some new javelins and shoes too. My mother has trouble walking, I will see to it that she gets the best treatment,” Manju says.

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