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Friday, September 17, 2021

Barath Sridhar: From pawning gold to minting bronze

Barath stood on the podium but made trips to the local pawn shop when the family overshot their monthly budget to fund his athletics career.

Written by Nihal Koshie |
Updated: August 26, 2021 8:23:29 am
Barath Sridhar400 metre specialist Barath Sridhar (right) with his father Sridhar, mother Deepa and younger brother Geethapriyan.

Barath Sridhar has a long list of people to thank for helping him become a world junior medallist. Last week the 18-year-old from Villupuram in Tamil Nadu was the first runner of the 400 metre mixed relay team which won bronze at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi. Barath says he was lucky to be spotted by a district sports officer when in Class 6 and is thankful his parents pawned their gold to fund his career.

For two years he gave up running because there was nobody to guide him. He remains indebted to a physical education teacher who helped revive his career in senior school. A thank you note is also due to his current coach who helped him move out of a backwater for sports to Chennai.

“The main problem was there was nobody to guide me there after the district sports officer was transferred. There were no athletes to look up to. I am perhaps the only athlete at this level in that district. I started by running in the parking lot of my school,” Barath says.

His parents, Sridhar, a lorry driver and mother Deepa, a homemaker, emptied their savings to put their elder son in a CBSE school in Villupuram, a district covered under the government’s Backward Regions Grant Fund. The choice of school made a difference. Naahar Public School fielded their students at cluster meets for CBSE schools. For two consecutive years, he won the gold in the 400 metres at state-level competitions. His parents’ decision to invest in good education was the starting point for the bright young athlete.

Barath stood on the podium but made trips to the local pawn shop when the family overshot their monthly budget to fund his athletics career.

“My parents always supported me. It is because of their sacrifice that I am here. When I needed something, like a shoe or a flight ticket to travel for a national competition they would cut down on expenses elsewhere. Or my mother would give me her jewellery to take to the pawn shop. Once we got money later, we would take the gold back. I used to go to the pawn shop and hand over the jewellery,” Barath says.

Barath Sridhar 400 metre specialist Barath Sridhar (first from right) with his teammates. (AFI)

Being a student in the only CBSE school in the region also burnt a hole in their pocket. “The fee is about 80,000 a year. We really struggled to pay the fees. But in Villupuram this is the only school which fields athletes for competitions. Over the years as I started representing the school in cluster competitions I got a small discount in fees,” Barath says.

When he spoke to his parents from Nairobi after the mixed relay team won bronze, there were tears of joy, he says. Barath hopes athletics will also help him uplift the family. His father’s truck, which is nearly 15 years old, may need a fitness certificate soon. “The lorry is very old. With vehicle pollution rules in place, I don’t think he will be able to drive it for too long. I think he will have to give it up next year. Because of the age of the vehicle, my father is able to ferry only light loads,” Barath says.

Covid hurdles

Before Nairobi, Barath had to cross other hurdles. In June, he tested positive for Covid-19 and gave up training for a while. When he returned to the track, he found it difficult to breathe after a light exercise.

“I started training and my mind was not ready for work out. I could not run much, my cardio capacity was reduced, breathing was difficult and my hands and legs were not supporting my running. I had to overcome that,” the teenager, a fan of South African Wayde Van Niekerk and American Michael Johnson, says. However, the lost time left an impact as he could not qualify for the individual 400 metres event at the junior world championships. “The qualifying standard was 47.35 seconds, I managed 47.55 though I topped the trials.”

An unexpected injury would have cost him a place in the Indian mixed relay team. He trains on a 200 metre track on a football ground in a school in Chennai. The switch to the synthetic surface at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala resulted in soreness of his left ankle. “The change to synthetic track put a lot of pressure on my left ankle. Compared to the 400 metre track, the 200 metre track has a smaller curve so that also made an impact. I was fortunate the coaches and physios believed in me and managed the injury well,” Barath says.

Gamble pays off

Kamal Ali Khan, the chief coach for juniors, knew it would be a risk to make Barath run more than one race in Nairobi. “We felt Barath would run below 48 seconds. But we wanted to be careful and not overexpose him. So we didn’t field him in the heats and preserved him for the final. The gamble paid off as he gave us a solid start,” Khan says.

The strategy worked for the squad which comprised Priya Mohan, Summy, Kapil and Barath as they finished ahead of the Jamaicans. When he returns home to Villupuram, Barath would be carrying precious cargo from Kenya. Wooden sculptures for which Kenya is famous for — he got a giraffe — and a medal which will put his district on the track and field map.

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