The Asian Games has often been a stage where stars are born. Scroll looks at a number of athletes from the Indian contingent who have largely flown under the radar, but may shoot into the limelight in Hangzhou.

For the longest time in her life, KM Chanda knew nothing about the world of athletics.

As is the case with many schools in rural India, the 22-year-old’s school in her village, Sonpur in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district, had next to no sporting paraphernalia. The javelin spear was a sharpened wooden stick while they used a heavy ball for shot put.

When the school had to send students for the zonal sports meets, teachers – the school had no sports coaches – would round up students and ask them which event they would like to compete in. Chanda was asked the same question.

She did not find much appeal in any throwing or jumping events, so the running track became the default choice. Yet she excelled.

She won zonal and inter-zonal events in the 800m and 1500m events. But it was not until the 2019 National School Championships where she got her first big break – winning gold in the 800m race.

And she did all this by using the sports shoes her teachers had bought for her before her first event in 2016.

Seven years after she accidentally took up track running and realised she loved it, Chanda is all set to take the next big step in her journey as she hopes to finish on top of the podium in the women’s 800m event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

“I sometimes think about how I was back then and what I have achieved so far,” Chanda said wistfully to Scroll.

“My family did not know anything about sports. Even now they ask me about things that they don’t understand. I think about my childhood days in school and how things were back then. I feel happy to see how far I have come now. Ab naam hua hai mera. Now I have made a name for myself.”

Chanda has not had it easy at all. Hailing from a poor family, Chanda’s father Satyanarayan Prajapati contracted tuberculosis which drained the family’s finances. Though cured of the disease, Prajapati suffers from severe breathlessness which means he cannot work anymore.

Chanda’s mother Heeramani Devi is the family’s sole breadwinner who tends to their small piece of farmland while also working on neighbouring farms.

So when Chanda got an offer from Kulbir Singh, an athletics coach from Delhi, to move to the city to train under him, she knew that her family could never afford to send her away. Thankfully for Chanda, Singh used his own money to help Chanda find boarding in the city while also ferrying her to and fro for training.

“He literally took me up from the ground and made me who I am,” Chanda said of her interaction with Singh after the latter spotted her talent at the 2019 National School Games. “He asked me to come to Delhi but I didn’t have any money. He said would take care of it. He told me to give my exams at my village school and then to come to Delhi. He took care of my lodging, diet and training.”

Big city life

Despite having her immediate needs taken care of, Chanda initially found life in Delhi difficult. Hailing from a village with a population of barely a hundred people, Chanda found the hustle and bustle of the capital city overwhelming. She admitted that she often thought about leaving everything and going back home.

“Everything was novel and unknown to me,” she said. “Coming from a village, I didn’t know how people were in the city. It was like a new world for me.

“I didn’t go around the city at all. I didn’t talk to anyone because what would I even talk about? I didn’t know anything. I used to feel uncomfortable at times. I used to wonder if I could ever settle in a new city. Mann hi nahi lagta tha,” Chanda, who is supported by Dream Foundation, said.

Even now, while she trains at the Sports Authority of India’s Bengaluru campus, Chanda longs for home and a simple life. Weariness seeped into her voice when she talked about her struggle in juggling life as an athlete and a student while also having time to do things 20-year-olds nowadays do.

“How do I focus on sports, academics and life?” Chanda asked with a sense of resignation. “It’s very difficult. You practice in the morning till 10 and are very tired. You don’t even want to eat. Just fall asleep. But you have to go to college and go for practice again in the evening. Then eat and go to sleep. Between all this, you just hope no one asks you to do anything else.”

Even as she worries about how to manage her life, Chanda has delivered whenever she steps on to the track.

Shifting events

When she was introduced to track events, Chanda competed in the 800m, 1,500m and 3,000m events. The choice of the events, as Chanda recalled, was because she told her teachers that she did not want to run short distances or long distances. Under Singh in Delhi, Chanda realised she did not enjoy running 3,000m as much. And so, Singh shifted her focus exclusively to running 800m and 1,500m with the occasional foray into the relay races.

The 800m is her strength, allowing her to exploit her speed over a longer distance. But it was not until the 2021 season when Chanda made a breakthrough, winning gold medals at the Indian Grand Prix 1, the Federation Cup, the Under-23 Championships while also picking up a silver medal at the National Open Championships.

A year later she established her dominance over 800m as she won gold in all the seven meets she competed in (according to World Athletics data). And this year has been just as fruitful.

She won gold medals at the Thiruvananthapuram Indian Grand Prix, the Federation Cup and the Indian Athletics Championships before clinching silver at the Asian Athletics Championships.

“When I won silver at the Asian Championships, my brother was very happy,” she said. “He has been studying outside so he has more knowledge of things. I send him links of my video streams of my events and he watches me compete,” Chanda said of her elder brother who is a law student in Varanasi.

Now she’s set her sights on the Asian Games.

Hangzhou represents a major stepping stone in Chanda’s budding career. A gold medal at the Asiad will not only be a confidence boost for her, but might also open new doors for the Uttar Pradesh runner.

Chanda still feels homesick and often worries about her parents back home. But she has also come to terms with making sacrifices for the sake of her career. Which is why this year, she missed her annual tradition of going back home to celebrate Rakshabandhan with her family.

“My mother told me that there is a month left for the Asian Games and that coming home for a day would not hurt,” Chanda said.

“But since becoming a sportsperson, I have realised how quickly time passes by. My races are decided by micro-seconds. So when they say come for a day, I realise how that is a lot of time. Time I can use to train and prepare for my races.”

Chanda has come a long way since running a race for the first time seven years ago. She also has had to do a lot of growing up in that time. Though she still worries about many things in her life, she also has hope of better things to come.

In China, she hopes to get the best yet.