Twenty-one-year-old Anjali Devi’s meteoric rise over the past year, from being a little-known athlete to twice breaching the World Championships qualification mark in the highly competitive 400 metres, has been nothing short of remarkable.
In September, the Haryana athlete won the gold medal (51.79 seconds) at the Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar to meet the Qualifying Standards (51.80) for the biennial global event. On Thursday, at the 59th Inter-State Athletics Championships, Anjali beat a PT Usha-trained athlete and two national campers to emerge victorious. She improved her personal best to 51.53 seconds.
But Anjali will have to appear for ‘confirmatory trials’ closer to the World Championships, a top Athletics Federation of India (AFI) official confirmed. Confirmatory trials are held for athletes who are not part of the national camp or whose flash-in-the-pan performances or sudden dip in form raise doubts over their ability to excel consistently. Anjali fits the criterion.
She won the ‘best athlete award’ in Bhubaneswar and after an assessment, was inducted in the national camp under foreign coach Galina Bukharina. She was seen as one of the brightest youngsters to emerge till her timings began to plateau and then dip during the 90-day camp in Antalya, Turkey.
So she was sent back to train at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, where campers train when in the country.
Her timings in training didn’t improve – her best in four races in Feb-March was 54.50 seconds – and soon she left the camp. The reasons she gave for going home kept changing – from her mother not being well, to wanting to sit for examinations. Since the end of March, AFI has made a number of attempts to convince her to return to the camp, but over these five months she has stayed away. She also missed the state trials in June.
Anjali tried to clear the air over her absence from the camp and said she had an ankle injury for which she wanted to consult her personal doctor in Rohtak. However, her explanation cut no ice with the AFI.
“Anjali will have to attend a confirmatory trial before the World Championships. AFI has a policy of making athletes, who are not part of the national camp or have stayed away for whatever reason, attend these trials once they qualify for an international competition. Before the Asian Games, we had conducted similar confirmatory trials for athletes like Sandeep Kumari (discus throw) and Monica Chaudhary (1,500 metres) as they were not part of the national camp but had qualified. AFI has been asking Anjali to join the national camp for the past few months but she has given different reasons for not doing so. So we will have to see her performance at the confirmatory trials. Only after that will we decide on her selection for the World Championships,” AFI’s planning commission chairman Lalit Bhanot told The Indian Express.
Being at the national camp, according to Bhanot, provides an athlete the best possible facilities for training, including guidance from qualified coaches, a nutritious diet and, at the same time, ensures that an athlete is clean as anti-doping tests are conducted regularly. The field Anjali obliterated in the women’s 400 metres final on Thursday included national campers Saritaben Gayakwad, Revathi V and Jisna Mathew (Usha School).
The top quarter-milers, including World Under-20 champion Hima Das are in a training-and-competition phase in Jablonec in the Czech Republic. This group will head straight to the Doha World Championships to be held in September-October.
Hima’s inability to meet the Qualifying Standard of 51.80 seconds has resulted in the spotlight being on Anjali, whose rapid rise but long stints away from the camp has made officials cautiously optimistic about her future.
Anjali said she was now looking forward to joining the national camp in the run-up to the World Championships. She had participated in the Federation Cup in Patiala in May, but failed to make the final.
“During the Federation Cup, I was injured. Also I had put on weight. I was unfit. Following that, I went for an ankle treatment. I wanted to consult my personal doctor, who treated a back injury earlier, so I went home. Since then, I have been training with my personal coach in Kalva in Jind. As I am fit now, I thought I must participate in the inter-state championships because I wanted to register a good time before the World Championships,” Anjali said.
Anjali is not the first 400m runner who has played peekaboo with AFI. Nirmala Sheoran, a 2017 Asian Championship gold medallist, was absent from the camp for 10 months leading up to last year’s Asian Games. She made a reappearance at the National Inter-State Championships in Guwahati and met the Qualifying Standard for the Asiad, where she finished fourth. She was not picked for the 4x400m relay squad. In November last year, Nirmala failed a dope test.