The national record holder in the women’s discus throw Kamalpreet Kaur was coaxed by her physical education teacher in school to participate in a state-level meet when she was in Class 10.
She didn’t win a medal, but the fourth-place finish lit her competitive spirit. The six-foot one-inch tall athlete from Kabarwala village in Punjab’s Sri Muktsar Sahib district has come a long way since first trying her hand at shot put before switching to the discus.
Kamalpreet’s journey from a little-known athlete to a Tokyo-bound one gathered steam just months before the Olympics.
In March she rewrote the national record, became the first Indian woman to cross the 65-metre mark and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
In June she bettered the mark again, her 66.59 metre throw was a huge improvement on her previous best of 65.06. Her newfound fame has also helped make friends on the circuit. Athletes used to give her the cold shoulder earlier but now are happy to stop and chat.
“Earlier other competitors would not even talk to me. Some would just turn their backs to me the moment they saw me, I can’t say why. I would quietly come, compete and leave but now things have changed. People know me on the circuit and want to talk to me. Some junior athletes ask for selfies,” Kamalpreet says.
Not being academically-inclined proved to be a blessing in disguise for Kamalpreet.
“With my dismal results in school exams, I thought I might as well try my hand at sports. I started off with the shot put but my coach felt I would do better in discus so I stuck with it.”
The journey from a reluctant athlete to one who will represent India at the Tokyo Games has had its share of hurdles.
When a teenaged Kamalpreet told her parents she wanted to pursue track and field, her father Kuldeep set off to Badal to check if the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre would take her in.
But the young and inexperienced athlete had not earned her spurs so the doors remained shut. “There was a private school and sports hostel near the SAI facility. They demanded a fee of Rs 1 lakh. I had to sell some of my land to fund her training. The other students in the hostel wore branded clothing and shoes. I couldn’t afford to buy them for my daughter,” Kuldeep, a farmer, says.
Kamalpreet had to make do with canvas shoes, instead of a pair made specifically for discus throw.
“Those shoes used to last her less than a week. She would keep telling me, ‘Papa I need good branded shoes to compete. But I did not have the resources. I used to take those canvas shoes to a cobbler and ask him to stitch extra layers of rubber and leather to the sole. That’s the best I could do for her back then,” Kuldeep adds. But things started looking up soon. When she bagged her first junior national medal, she was selected to train at the SAI centre. She met her mentor and coach Rakhi Tyagi and the two have nurtured a successful partnership for over seven years.
“I am her friend first and coach later. She is very honest and dedicated. She has great willpower, good technique and a lot of strength. I am not only close to her but her family as well. Kamal’s parents often tell me that they have two daughters,” Rakhi says.
Despite her recent achievements, the spotlight won’t be on Kamalpreet when the track and field events start. All the attention is on javelin star Neeraj Chopra. Kamalpreet, if she throws to her potential, could make the final of the women’s discus throw.
Kamalpreet’s 66.59m throw is currently the sixth-best attempt in the world this season and would have earned her a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She will need a series of consistent throws to progress in Tokyo and may have to deal with nerves some first-time Olympians experience. Kamalpreet is going to Tokyo with a simple but clear goal.
“I have only one target on my mind and that is to give my best and hit close to 69m. I am not thinking about a medal or anything at the moment.”