At the beginning of the year, 10-year-old Tai Bamhane, a Warli tribal from western Maharashtra, won a silver medal in the 400m track event at the 60th School Games Nationals in Ranchi, Jharkhand. She ran in the under-14 category, beating girls three years older, most of them half a foot taller than she. Her huge stride length must surely have come as a surprise to her competitors, especially since Tai, at rest, moves so little that you barely notice her.

Tai is four feet nine inches tall. She has wide-set eyes and an open, listening expression. I had seen her at a state selection meet in Pune last year. A little later, at the Birsa Munda Athletics Stadium in Ranchi, I watched her easily overtake nearly everyone else on the track.

Impressed, I wanted to speak with her. But every time I would try to strike up a conversation, one or the other of her athlete friends, all from the Eklavya Athletics and Sports Institute in Nashik, would cut in to answer for her. When I would suggest they give her a chance, they would laugh apologetically saying she is shy and promptly reply to the next question I would address to her.

Finally, I happened upon Tai collecting her certificates from the Maharashtra team manager, and requested a few minutes alone. Even here, I had to playfully bat off 12-year-old runner Jyotika, a protective shadow, so Tai could speak for herself, should she so desire.

First national medal

We sat on bucket seats close to where the Maharashtra manager was distributing precious participation certificates to the team players – it was the last hour before the closing ceremony of the School Games Nationals.

Tai was not that shy, or perhaps the silver medal she had won was responsible for the eager smile that lit her face. This was her first national medal and she was indeed very young to receive it.

Have you told your mother and father about winning the race? I asked. Her eyes lost some of their lustre. She shook her head in a no.

I asked if she would like to call them from my cell phone. She shook her head again, looking unsure. I could not tell if I had crossed a line, breached some kind of etiquette by offering to phone her parents. I realised later that perhaps they do not have easy access to a phone.

Tai’s parents work as landless field labour in a village called Dalpatpur near Nashik. She is the youngest of their five children. She used to study at the village school with the rest of them. “There I won races,” she recalled, “always beating my schoolmates.”

Rigours and sacrifices

Taking a deep breath she recounts the event that changed her life. Last year, senior India athlete Kavita Raut, who originates from a village neighbouring to Tai’s, held a cross country race at which Tai finished first.

Kavita Raut and Tai’s school coach, Hirkud Sir, approached her parents to admit her at the Bhosla Military School in Nashik where she would avail a scholarship to study and attend athletics training. Tai has been there since April 2014 and seems, literally, to have made great strides in such brief a time.

She describes a daily training routine which is rigorous and demanding. No breaks, except on Sunday, are allowed.

“My parents have come to meet me twice since last April,” she said. “They were not allowed into the boarding school, so we stood outside the gates. My mother and I cried a lot, so my coach says it is better I don’t meet her often.”

To shift her attention away from the sacrifices, I ask her about the race. “It was my first national athletic meet,” Tai said, happy again. “I clocked 59 seconds in the semifinal race and 1 minute in the final. Because there was just a two-hour break between the two races I didn’t get much rest.”

Dreams of fame

What was it like to run against older and bigger girls? I asked.

“I have been nervous in the past,” she replied. “But my coach said to go out there and run fearlessly. This time I did.”

Tai’s coach, Vijender Singh, associated with the Eklavya Athletics and Sports Institute, says he has great hopes for Tai. “At the age of 10, if she can win a national medal, think of the heights she could reach in the years to come.”

Tai’s childhood will pass into youth in the rigorous routine of a young athlete’s life. Perhaps this loss of ease and rest will be worth all she gains from it. For now, Tai Bamhane, who remarks that her friends and family in the village have no idea what her life as a runner is about, is absorbed in her national silver.

“In the future I wish to win more. My dream is to become even more famous than my idol, Kavita Raut.”