Long jumpers and triple jumpers are, perhaps stereotypically, seen as tall athletes with long limbs. Standing just over five feet, India’s Aishwarya Babu bucks that trend.

Relying on what her coach Sri Aiyappa calls “explosive power”, Aishwarya propelled herself into the national record books at the Inter-State Meet in Chennai early June when she broke Mayookha Johny’s 11-year-old triple jump record with a 14.14m effort. The Karnataka athlete started off with 13.84m, and then with her third attempt, set the new national record and jumped around, of course, in celebratory fashion.

A day later, she jumped 6.73m in the long jump qualifiers, the second-best by an Indian after Anju Bobby George. In the process, the 25-year-old made the cut for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in both events.

Five years ago though, Aishwarya was not even expecting to jump again after suffering a career-threatening injury.

Days after winning her first triple jump gold medal at the 2017 National Open Athletics Championships in Chennai, Aishwarya tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.

“After coming back from Chennai, I experienced a little pain in my right knee. Twelve days later, I took part in my university’s trials for an inter-university meet. When I went for my second jump, after I took my hop and step in the run up, I did not find my balance and my ligament tore,” Aishwarya told Scroll.in.

To understand how serious her injury was, one needs to look at where Aishwarya’s strengths lie.

Traditionally long and triple jumpers rely on a combination of long strides, sprint speed and the strength of their lower body to push off from the board to cover the distance.

To compensate for her short stature, Aishwarya relies more on the ability of her lower body to generate a massive amount of explosive power.

“For a person of short stature, she’s very, very explosive. That was the main thing that caught my eye,” coach Aiyappa told Scroll.in.

“Explosive power simply means how high you can jump from the ground level. She naturally has explosive power in her and she can go higher. Her leg muscles are as strong as basketball players’ and for her height, she’s world class. That’s the reason she’s really able to jump that much,” he said.

The importance of a carefully planned rehabilitation process thus became even more crucial for Aishwarya.

Aishwarya Babu in action at the Inter-State Athletics Meet in Chennai

After being operated upon by Dr. Madan Ballal at the Sanjay Gandhi Institute for Trauma and Orthopaedics, Aishwarya was confined to her bed, unable to walk and lost 11 kgs.

“I thought I would never be able to compete in sports again. I was very depressed and I went from 49 kgs to 38 kgs during that time. My thinking had become very negative. I thought that was the end of my career,” she said.

It required a lot of positive affirmations from her doctor, and her college coach Vasanth to snap Aishwarya out of that desolate phase and get her to believe in herself once again.

“I went back to Alvas college in Moodbidri where Vasanth sir oversaw my rehab sessions. Vasanth sir literally took me back to my basics as if he was teaching a little child,” she said.

Two months after her operation, Aishwarya began her rehab by regaining the strength in her legs through conditioning exercises for her knee followed by weight training. Only after coach Vasanth was satisfied with her progress did Aishwarya switch to the track.

After being out for almost a year, Aishwarya made her comeback in the long jump at the 2018 Moodbidri Inter-University Championships where she finished fifth. She made her triple jump comeback at the regional championships in Bengaluru in July 2018 where she came first with a sub-13m jump.

Mental strength to the fore

If her injury tested her physically, her comeback was a test of her mental fortitude as she strove to get back to her previous level without getting the support she required.

“Back then, I had no scholarship, no support, and even though I was performing well, no one was watching. My university helped in whatever way they could,” she said.

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, Aishwarya approached Bengaluru-based Aiyappa to coach her.

Having come across her at state events, Aiyappa was well aware of her explosive power and decided to work instead on her speed and strength.

“I decided to work on whatever she was lacking and that was in speed and strength. Her speed and strength combined with her explosiveness has come together and she’s progressing well now,” he said.

“Before I started training her, I consulted with Dr. Ballal. For the first 6 months, we really didn’t have a training regime for her. We just focused on rehabilitation and once she was back to her best, we started training. Normally, it is very difficult for people to recover after suffering from an ACL injury like her but she has compensated by becoming really strong.”

To further emphasise how well Aishwarya has recovered from her injury, Aiyappa said, “Before going for the inter-state meet in Chennai we had checked the strength of her legs. Her weaker leg, the left, has in fact become stronger than her stronger leg, the right. That’s a plus point for her. Now she can manage her strength because there’s virtually no difference between her legs.”

Women's triple jump Top 8 in 2022 (CWG nations)

Rank Mark Competitor Nat Date
1 14.53 Thea LAFOND DMA 18 MAY 2022
2 14.52 Shanieka RICKETTS JAM 18 JUN 2022
3 14.14 Aishwarya BABU SAB IND 13 JUN 2022
3 14.14 Naomi METZGER GBR 18 JUN 2022
5 14.08 Ackelia SMITH JAM 28 MAY 2022
6 14.03 Natricia HOOPER GUY 16 APR 2022
7 13.95 Ruth USORO NGR 11 JUN 2022
8 13.87 Kimberly WILLIAMS JAM 01 MAY 2022
Stats courtesy: World Athletics

Recognition and support did come her way eventually, as JSW started to sponsor her, freeing her mind to allow her to concentrate on her craft. And now that she’s started to dominate the domestic circuit, she’s got her attention set abroad.

The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham from July 28 to August 4 will be Aishwarya’s first foray outside the country.

“She doesn’t have any exposure at the international stage. She has a better chance of getting a medal at Commonwealth and Asian Games than the Worlds (in Oregon from July 15 to July 24) because the standard (at the World Championships) is too high,” Aiyappa said.

“Given her knee and a small niggle in her hamstring two months ago; I didn’t want her to push through much. To be on the safer side, I felt she should stick to a plan for the CWG.”

As the season list shows, Aishwarya indeed has a better chance of doing well in Birmingham.

Top 8 long jumps by CWG athletes in 2022

Rank Mark Competitor Nat Date
1 6.92 Ese BRUME NGR 14 JUN 2022
2 6.89 Deborah ACQUAH GHA 02 APR 2022
3 6.80 Christabel NETTEY CAN 29 MAY 2022
4 6.79 Filippa FOTOPOULOU CYP 25 MAY 2022
5 6.78 Ruth USORO NGR 14 MAY 2022
6 6.73 Aishwarya BABU SAB IND 12 JUN 2022
7 6.70 Samantha DALE AUS 06 MAR 2022
8 6.69 Tyra GITTENS TTO 15 APR 2022
8 6.69 Lorraine UGEN GBR 25 JUN 2022
Stats courtesy: World Athletics

Rest and recovery will be key to Aishwarya’s chances at the Birmingham Games and the 25-year-old will get some breathing space with the long jump and triple jump spaced out over the course of five days.

However, with the long jump qualifiers and the final of the triple jump taking place on the same day, Aishwarya will need to keep her strength levels up.

Aiyappa, though, has been focused on her mental conditioning along with his wife Pramila, a Olympian heptathlete. The pair believes that the challenge Aishwarya will face in her first international outing will be mental rather than physical.

Having bounced back strong from the near-end of a promising career, Aishwarya indeed has the right tools to take flight on the international stage.