Bhawana Jat would have still been herding buffaloes if it wasn’t for the support of her physical education teacher at school. A decade ago a young Bhawana was taking the family’s only buffalo grazing when she bumped into the teacher and his trainees who were heading for a district championship. Bhawana took a chance and asked Hira Lal Kumavat if she could go along. He obliged immediately. Barefoot, she won the gold in the 3-kilometer race walk event to everybody’s surprise. It was the start of a long, hard but fruitful journey for the girl from Kelwa village in Rajsamand, Rajasthan.
On Saturday, the daughter of a mason who couldn’t afford a pair of shoes for the longest time clocked 1 hour, 29 minutes and 54 seconds in the 20km race walk, a timing well inside the Olympic qualification standard of 1:31:00, to win the gold at the national championships and book a berth for the Tokyo Olympics. She also broke the national record which stood at 1:31:29. Bhawana’s timings was a huge improvement on her 1:38.30s set in October last year during the National Open Championships and the challenge will be for her to maintain her form closer to the Olympics.
On the biggest day of her career, one of the first people the 23-year-old spoke to was her first coach Kumavat.
“I still remember that day when I was out in the field. The temperature was touching close to 40 degrees and I had walked more than seven kilometres in search of green pastures for the buffalo. That is when I saw Kumawat sir and his trainees heading for the district meet. Since all the spots were filled up, he told me I only had the option to participate in the 3km walk. Chalna hi toh hai (all I have to do is walk), I told myself back then,” Bhawana said.
The family stayed in a one-room mud house in Kelwa village and to fund his daughter’s athletics career Shankar Lal Jat, a mason who earns Rs 300 daily, had to take a mortgage and borrow money from a lender. Her elder brother Prakash Chander was a budding athlete but had to give up on his dreams and take up a job to make ends meet as Bhawana showed promise.
“When Bhawana told me about competing in district meets, I was only worried about how to get her shoes. We mortgaged our house so she could use the money for her training and diet needs. Today all the sacrifices have paid off. The fact that she has qualified for the Olympics brings us a lot of joy,” Shankar said.
Bhawana started formal coaching on the mud track in her village but things started looking up when she won a silver at the Junior National Athletics Championships at Vijaywada. When word spread about the talented girl from the village who had won a national medal, Hindustan Zinc factory located in nearby Dariba gave her Rs 4,000 for a pair of walking shoes.
Coach Kumawat is all praise for the hard work of his ward but a story from a few years ago, he says, showed how determined she could be when faced with the odds.
“During the Rajasthan Athletics Meet in 2011, she struck her foot on a stone and it started bleeding. But she completed the race without flinching. Kumawat said.
A silver at the national race walking championships in 2016 marked her out as special but a setback followed the next year when she suffered a knee injury.
Her current coach Gurmukh Sihag talks about the difficult period.
“She had suffered knee injury but we worked on improving her technique during that time. Her hand movement was not correct and was hampering her timing. So I would make her watch videos of 2016 Olympics champion Liu Hong of China so that she is able to see what is the right way. We also focussed on strength training during her injury layoff,” Gurmukh said..
Bhawana now hopes to improve her timings steadily and peak at the right time for the Tokyo Olympics. “Apart from working on my technique, which I still feel needs improvement, I will be aiming to improve my timing in next month’s Asian Championships. My training will all be focussed towards doing my very best at Tokyo,” she said.
The newest race walk star will also have to eke out time to fill forms and apply for a passport. From Kelwa village to Tokyo, it has been a tough journey but Bhawana has taken the setbacks in her stride and excelled when it mattered most.
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