FOR ALMOST half a decade, Pragnya Mohan has been rising before the sun to be able to freely whiz around on Ahmedabad’s Ring Road, to beat the city’s notorious traffic. She spends six months abroad, in Australia and Spain, so she can — among other things — train in open waters, something that’s practically impossible in the polluted, crocodile-infested rivers across Gujarat and most of India. The 27-year-old has suffered five major road accidents, while training or competing, undergone two surgeries and has metal rods inserted in her wrist and leg.
On Friday, Day 1 of the mega event in Birmingham, the qualified chartered accountant will lead the Indian team that will make its triathlon debut at the Commonwealth Games. India has sent a four-member team — Adarsh M S, Vishwanath Yadav and Sanjana Joshi being the other three — to Birmingham in a sport that incorporates swimming, cycling and running in one race and where the country virtually has no history.
However, the focus will be on Pragnya, who is the national and South Asian champion as well, as the only Indian to compete in a triathlon World Cup. “We knew she had it in her to make a career in sport,” says Pragnya’s father Pratap. Nobody, however, could have guessed that it would be triathlon.
At first, they thought it could be swimming, a sport where Pragnya started competing at the age of eight. “She was good but never won a medal; the best she finished at the (age-group) nationals was fourth,” says Prateek, her elder brother. “At the same time, we used to have mini-marathons in school. She could easily win that, beating girls twice her age.”
Cycling was more out of compulsion than choice. The pool where Pragnya trained was 10 km away from her home. Initially, Pratap dropped and picked her up daily. But after he had to shift cities due to professional commitments, Pragnya and Prateek decided to cycle it to the pool and back. “Every day, she cycled 20 km,” says Prateek.
For years, all three sports were looked at individually, but that changed in 2013, when she won a 50 km cycling race “without much practice” and earned Rs 1 lakh as prize money. “She liked swimming and was good at running; after that race, we realised she was good at cycling as well,” says Prateek, who is on the organising team of the Chess Olympiad that’s being held in Chennai. Pratap, now retired, adds: “We knew what triathlon was because there were a couple of people from Gujarat who had tried it. So, we thought why not combine the three disciplines and give it a shot?”
However, there was a problem – there were no good triathlon coaches. Pragnya continued to train for all three sports individually, under different coaches. “But they were all trying to pull her in their direction since she was good at each of them. They had no idea how to balance the three sports. So I had to take charge,” says Pratap, 61, who decided to coach his daughter.
A decade ago, he says, there was limited reference material online – written and video. So, he turned to “The Triathlete’s Training Bible”, a book by US-based Joe Friel, “the daddy in terms of scientific work on triathlon”.
While Pratap, an IIT and IIM graduate, learnt triathlon techniques and tried them on his daughter (“I used to experiment on her and sometimes, it wasn’t successful,” he laughs), Pragnya pursued her CA degree, which she completed in 2017. But instead of living a life of an accountant, she decided to switch to triathlon full-time.
It wasn’t so straightforward. “We faced two major issues – the sport is relatively unknown in India and therefore, the resources are limited, be it the roads to cycle on or a place to swim,” Prateek, 29, says. “The biggest challenge is cycling. The only way to cycle on our roads is to get up before dark, and complete the entire session before 7 am, when the traffic begins. For elite-level speeds, it’s impossible to cycle on roads. So, she wakes up every day by 4-4.30 am and leaves for training before 5 am,” he says.
Pratap talks about the other big hurdle: inaccessibility to Olympic-size swimming pools as well as open waters, given that swimming races in triathlons are held in open waters. “Not just Ahmedabad but in the whole of Gujarat, most lakes and rivers are infested with crocodiles; it’s because of a conservation project that’s going on in the state,” Pratap says. “People do swim in it but you need to take a lot of precautions, which isn’t always practically possible. The Sabarmati River, on the other hand, has water for around one month a year.”
So, for a race that’s held in open waters, Pragnya trains in a 25-metre swimming pool, which isn’t ideal. “In the pool, you take a turn every 50m or 25m, as in Pragnya’s case. So you get a push at the turn and therefore, you are faster. We have noticed that for every 100m, the timing in the pool is 3-4 seconds faster than open waters, which is significant,” says Pratap.
Consequently, for the last four years, Pragnya has been spending six months each year in either Australia or Spain, investing the prize money she earned by running in marathons across the country, as well as the stipend earned during her CA articleships, apart from the support provided by her family.
Self-funded, coached by her father and navigating her way into the highly-demanding world of triathlon without much support either from the federation or government, Pragnya has clocked personal best timings of approximately 11 minutes in swimming (750m), 32 minutes on the bike (20km), and 19 minutes in 5km run.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
These timings are in the sprint triathlon, which is half the Olympic distance, which puts her in 24th place on the starting list for Friday’s race, where she will be up against some of the top triathletes from Bermuda, England, Australia, Scotland, Canada and New Zealand, countries with a rich history in the sport.
“This is an important stepping stone,” says Pratap. “Our ultimate target is the Olympics. We have a little less than two years to make the cut.”
Pragnya is ranked 372 in the world — best among Indians — but her timings, Prateek and Pratap say, are closer to the ones near the top 100. To qualify for the Olympics, she’ll need to be around the top 70. It might seem a dream too far at the moment, but Pratap is quietly optimistic.
“We are trying hard,” he says. “The rest, we’ll see.”