Run. Jump. Keep your knee up.

It sounds simple. But hurdles races in track and field are among the most technically demanding events in the sport. And for India, there is a new star emerging in this explosive event: Jyothi Yarraji.

The 22-year-old from Vizag broke a 20-year-old Indian record in women’s 100m hurdles earlier this year. The mark belonged to Anuradha Biswal when she clocked 13.38 seconds in New Delhi, in August 2002. But once Jyothi broke it for the first time in May, she bettered her own personal best mark thrice. Her best timing - the national record - is 13.04s.

“It was my Physical Education Teacher who suggested to try hurdles,” Jyothi told Scroll.in in an interaction from her training centre in Odisha, before she left for England. “I was in 10th class. I didn’t know what events were even there. But when I competed for the first time, I ran... I fell down... and I came back up and ran again. I liked it. I felt it suited me, my mind and body. I just liked it. Run. Jump. Run. Jump.”

It is a feature she has cultivated throughout her career. On more than occasion, she has had to face setbacks but she seems to find the answers to bounce back.

Jyothi, who trains at the Odisha Reliance Foundation (HPC) now, produced the record-breaking runs in the very first set of international events of her sporting career. That tour was also meant to get her used to the European time zone, weather and food.

All so that at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on Friday, when she makes her debut at a marquee event, there is an air of familiarity to everything she does. Except, of course, the occasion.

When she began cultivating an interest in the event, she didn’t inform her parents.

“I used to jump over walls to chase after my brother. Hurdles felt like a natural event for me,” she recalled. With the encouragement from her PE teacher and watching seniors take part in events after school, she decided this was it.

In fact, when she competed in an event for the first time (South Zone, around 2015) she didn’t tell her parents that she was competing in hurdles.

“I just said I went to an athletics meet. I didn’t really explain what it was to them, I just said I was interested. I want this. And then I showed videos when I came back. They asked if I got hurt or something. My mom then told me, ‘for you, this is good, actually’, because she knows,” Jyothi added, as she broke into a laugh the first and only time during the length of the conversation with this publication.

Jyothi's 100mH progression

Performance Place Date
2016 15.51 Hyderabad (IND) 30 JUN 2016
2017 15.62 Vijayawada (IND) 17 NOV 2017
2018 14.70 Ranchi (IND) 03 NOV 2018
2019 13.91 Lucknow (IND) 30 AUG 2019
2020 13.03 Moodbidri (IND) 05 JAN 2020
2022 13.04 Vughtse Sports Club Prins Hendrik, Vught (NED) 26 MAY 2022

However, before her impressive European sojourn this year, where she broke and reset the national records, Jyothi had heartbreak in India. She had thought she achieved the milestone in April but it wasn’t to be. The Indian Express had then posted a video of Jyothi in tears at the Federation Cup in Kozhikode, and being consoled by her coach James Hillier. Jyothi had broken the national record, but it could not be ratified since the run was wind assisted.

It showed a couple of things. That Jyothi is competitive. But also that the coach was there to let her know that she has time on her side.

Hillier, former National Coach and Athlete Development Manager for England Athletics, who is now Head Coach of Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High Performance Center, first saw Jyothi during the Khelo India event in Odisha in 2020. He knew then that she had that special something in her that athletics coaches look for. The raw speed. The fire to compete.

And that is why he knew that that day in April would propel her on. As it did in Cyprus, the United Kingdom and Netherlands... the three races where she would go on to break her own mark .

“I knew how much it meant to her and obviously what happened there was cruel, but, you know, I just said, ‘it’s okay, look, everything’s gonna be okay. And, you know, this has happened for a reason’. And, you know, what actually what happened in Europe? That was a consequence of what happened there,” Hillier told Scroll.in

The hurdles are a fascinating set of events. It is hard enough to strain all the muscles in the body running over set distances against a group of competitors who are all vying, desperately doing everything they can, to be a hundredth or a thousandth of a second better. And then, on top of that, you put a few hurdles in place. Here, don’t just run... jump over these too.

But Hillier said that thought shouldn’t even come across a hurdler’s mind in peak form. The hurdles are actually part of the athletes’ strides. When you run and jump at that speed, that is the only way to succeed. Hurdlers don’t see obstacles in front of them, they see strides of different lengths.

So what does it mean for Jyothi to run fast and take these hurdles in stride to break national records? “I don’t think much about all that,” she is quick to respond. “I do my best when it comes without my permission. It flows. It just came in those races in Europe. And then when I came to India, I wanted to do it in our country as well. I was so eager to run in the night, floodlights... good weather... unfortunately, I fell down.”

The race she spoke about was the Inter-State meet in Chennai.

Once again, she had to fall so that she could rise.

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According to the coach, the fall was alright because it happened for the right reasons.

“I know she didn’t like how she felt in that competition. So she’s going to be even more focused. We made a decision before that competition. She could have easily gone around 13.20-13.30 and won the race. But we took a risk, I wanted to work on a couple of things in that race, that we hadn’t had a huge amount of time working on in the past,” Hillier explained.

“So we took a little bit of risk, you know, and it was coming off. It was paying off because she ran the best seven-eight hurdles that she’s ever run. And then she just couldn’t quite finish it. It happened for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons. It happened because she ran so well. Her feedback was that ‘I felt so fast’. We know how we can take it to the next level.”

Hillier believes that Jyothi can run considerably faster if she sticks to these processes. He was adamant that the target would never be timing-based. It would always be about improving her technique, analyse the 100ths of seconds she can gain from her strengths and managing her weaknesses.

“I joked with her after that race... you have had three PBs, now there was a PW. A Personal Worst. A sub-30 timing. We laughed about it. You don’t reach the top of Mt. Everest in one day. We know where we are going, there are levels to get there. We want her to be in the present, all the time,” he added.

When Jyothi arrived at the HPC she was low on confidence and had significant scar tissue build up in her calf due to previous injuries, according to information provided by the centre. Hillier then had a team setup to work with her - a physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach. They gradually went about getting her back to good shape.

“The lockdown was tough. I had no facilities to train at. I didn’t know what was next, it was scary.” Jyothi, who started formal athletics training in 2015 at the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh’s centre of excellence, recalled.

“We had already spoken about HPC. And then once I got here, they didn’t rush me to run. I took time to improve basic strength.”

For someone who hesitated speaking about herself, the moment she started talking about her team and the support she had received after a tough time, Jyothi talked without pauses, for minutes on end. The sprinter turned into a middle-distance runner.

“For a few months, I didn’t time myself. I was so lean when I got here after lockdown, I weighed 48-49 kgs at the time. So they gradually helped me to improve that. When I came here, I was scared to hurdle. There was such a long gap. The coach tried to give me short distances to hurdle and gradually built me up. I also had a Grade 2 meniscus tear. The physio was a huge help. My partners Moumita Mondal, Siddhanth Thingalaya, Graceson Jeeva... they have played a big part too. Strength & Conditioning, Psychologist,” she said, listing out the people who brought her back up to speed.

“The psychologist has been a main help here at HPC. The visualisation I spoke about, I learned here. Breathing exercises... everyone will tell you it is such an old fashioned thing, but it has helped a lot. It’s a huge hard working team. Working over one year and we are seeing the results now.

“For those 13 seconds, we train for months and months. I don’t want to waste any opportunity. I will visualise the race before the run. Recently I felt a little nervous after the national record. Everyone was asking me about it. I told my coach about it. He told me to leave everything aside and focus on those hurdles. When I am on the board, I just wait for the gun-start. Pick your knee. Pick your knee. That’s all I tell myself if I feel any nerves,” Jyothi added.

Jyothi's top results in 100mH (ratified)

Date Competition Cnt. Type Nr. Result Wind Record
05 JAN 2020 Indian Univ. Ch., Moodbidri IND F 13.03*
+1.9
26 MAY 2022 Harry Schulting Games, Vughtse Sports Club Prins Hendrik, Vught NED F2 13.04 (NR) +1.4  NR
22 MAY 2022 Loughborough International, Loughborough University Track, Loughborough GBR F 13.11 +0.3
28 MAY 2022 IFAM Oordegem, Sport Vlaanderen Atletiekpiste, Oordegem BEL F 13.19 +0.3
10 MAY 2022 Limassol International, Tsirio Stadium, Limassol CYP F 13.23 -0.1
28 MAY 2022 IFAM Oordegem, Sport Vlaanderen Atletiekpiste, Oordegem BEL H1 13.26 +0.5
31 JUL 2022 England Athletics Senior Ch., Bedford Athletic Stadium, Bedford GBR H1 13.30 +0.4
11 JUN 2022 National Inter State Senior Athletics Ch., Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Chennai IND H1 13.39 0.0
03 APR 2022 National Federation Cup, CH Muhammed Koya Stadium, Thenhipalam IND H2 13.43 +1.1
05 JAN 2020 Indian Univ. Ch., Moodbidri IND SF2 13.54 +1.8
*Not ratified (Stats courtesy World Athletics)

The 100m hurdles run by female athletes involves a distance of 13m to the first hurdle, 8.5m between hurdles thereafter, and 10.5m from the final hurdle to the finish.

When she gets set at the board on the Alexander Stadium track at the Commonwealth Games heats on Friday, she might not start as one of the favourites. But what she is more than capable of doing is continuing her impressive rise this year. The sprinter has been consistently improving her mark and is ever so close to becoming the first Indian woman to run a sub-13 seconds race.

UPDATE: Jyothi Yarraji was 10th overall in the women’s 100m hurdles Heats. Clocked a time of 13.18s, the 4th best officially recognised time of her career as per World Athletics.