Sarita Gaekwad, daughter of a farm labourer who was part of the women’s 4X400 relay team which won a gold at Asiad, once used to run barefoot. Gaekwad hails from a remote village in the tribal-dominated Dang district of Gujarat.
After the Indian relay team’s feat at Asian Games in Indonesia yesterday, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani announced an award of Rs 1 crore for Gaekwad. As she is a former student of Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, its Vice Chancellor Shivendra Gupta also announced an award of Rs 2 lakh for her. Gupta recalled that there was a time when she ran barefoot, not affording specialised shoes.
“She comes from a poor family. In the beginning, when she was a student, she used to take part in local competitions without wearing shoes,” he said. Now, the varsity has decided to appoint her its brand ambassador, Gupta informed.
Gaekwad’s parents live at village Karadi-Amba. Her father Laxmanbhai works as a farm labourer. Her journey as a professional athlete started when she took part in a 400 meters’ trial race organised by the Sports Authority of Gujarat (SAG) to find new talent in Gandhinagar in 2015.
Ajimon K S, her coach, said she caught his attention when she finished the run in a little over one minute. Ajimon, a former national coach, has been appointed by the Gujarat government as Expert Coach at a Nadiad-based academy run by the SAG.
“She finished the 400-meter run in just 1 minute and 1 second. As she was from Dang, a tribal area, she could not even speak Hindi. I took help of a Gujarati coach and convinced her to join the Nadiad academy,” said Ajimon. But initially Sarita was hesitant about devoting herself to the sports, he said.
“She could not complete her graduation, but she was physically very fit. We trained her at the academy for one and a half years. During that period, she took part in some national-level games, and then she was selected for the national team,” he said.
Ahead of the race yesterday, Sarita called him on his mobile phone to get some last-minute tips and motivation, he said.
At her village, people burst fire crackers upon learning about the gold medal of women’s relay team.
Local Congress MLA Mangal Gavit announced that he would give his one month’s salary to Sarita.
Her father Laxmanbhai said he was immensely proud. “I do not have words to express my joy. She made this village and the entire country proud. She liked running since she was a child. Now the whole country knows my daughter,” he said.