“At Beijing I was just a reserve and at Rio I was a senior member of the team. In between, eight years have passed but nothing, absolutely nothing has changed,” says the 26-year old Machettira Raju Poovamma, an athlete not known to mince her words.
The athlete, living in Mangalore for the last 25 years, has been India’s fastest woman over a quarter-mile or 400 metres for the last three years and was a part of the 4x400 metres relay team that finished 13th at Rio 2016.
Scroll.in spoke to Poovamma on the sides of the GoSports Foundation’s annual awards function in Bengaluru. Poovamma, sponsored by the Foundation since 2015 was recognised as the ‘Most Consistent Performer’ for her contributions to Indian athletics over the years.
“They lift you up, then bring you crashing down”
Some readers may remember that Poovamma, who was a reserve for the women’s 4x400 metres relay team in Beijing was India’s youngest athlete at the Olympic Games in 2008.
She was expected to be a shoo-in for the London 2012 team, but as Poovamma found out, things don’t always go to plan. A month before the trials for the Olympics were to be conducted, the sprinter suffered a horrendous injury which kept her out for almost 10 months and made her forego what was almost a guaranteed spot on the team for a second successive Olympics.
As we sit in the well-lit lobby of the ITC Windsor, Poovamma sporting a blue blazer is almost choking as she forces the words out, “Those times were really dark. I want to erase those memories.”
But as I found out, Poovamma’s problem is an age-old one and not something unfamiliar in the Indian sports scene. We identify the talent after they’ve set the sporting scene alight, not before, mind you, hype them up to atmospheric levels and then turn on them when their performance levels go down or missing. Clearly, standing with our athletes in troubled times is something we still have to learn.
Undergoing weight training in the gym, Poovamma ruptured the L4-L5 vertebrae disc in her spine. The lumbar spine (or the lower back) consisting of the L1-L5 vertebrae helps in supporting the upper body and allowing motion in multiple directions. Degeneration of the L4-L5 disc can result in possible leg pain and/or severe back pain.
During that time, Poovamma says that the same journos who praised her for her achievements in the span leading up to London turned on her. She says, “I read newspaper reports saying that I had gone missing, questioning why I was not performing at any meet. These people, the same ones that lifted me, had brought me crashing down.”
Post this revelation, I ask Poovamma the only logical question that comes to my mind, “Didn’t anyone check with you?” to which her answer is a resounding no. “It was very difficult for me to even go to the washroom but no one bothered checking with me,” says Poovamma as her expression turns expectedly sombre.
A happy ending
Her injury is a recurring one, and she has had to go through rehabilitation therapy several times post recovery. She seems happier with the Bengaluru-based not-for-profit’s involvement, “When you undergo an injury like that, you want some help, some support. Their (the Foundation’s) backing has given me a moral boost,” lending further credence to the theory that private organisations like GoSports, Olympic Gold Quest, JSW Sports and Anglian Medal Quest are filling important gaps in India’s sporting infrastructure.
A self-proclaimed fan of Jamaican sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross, Poovamma says she took up the 400 metres “for fun.” Born to a contractor at the Mangalore airport and a homemaker, she says she took up the 100 and the 200 metres after which she tried her hand out at the 400 metres.
Her mother, M R Jaji, is a lucky charm according to the sprinter. “Since 2005, I can’t recall a single domestic meet that she has missed. They (parents) are old but they do their utmost best to motivate me,” says Poovamma of her family’s involvement.
As she goes up to collect her award, Poovamma doesn’t shy away when asked about her journey as she reiterates, “I’ve been around for eight years but the diet, the schedule, the way of training as prescribed by our sporting authorities, nothing has changed.”
The Rio debacle is still on her mind as she recollects, “Prior to the Olympics, everyone was training individually with their personal coaches. We came together a week prior to the Games. In these events (relay), you need coordination, especially for the baton pass. A fraction of a second can make a difference.”
The authorities, she insists, have done nothing to change the approach to athletics in India, “In the West, each athlete has his or her personal diet and training regime designed for them. Here, they spend their time in the run up to the Olympics predicting the number of medals. I can only be satisfied in the fact that I gave my best on the day.”
And give her best, she did. After returning from injury in April 2013, Poovamma won the relay gold and silver in the individual 400 metres at the Asian Championships held at Pune, also notching up her personal best of 51.75 seconds at Lucknow the same year.
Her finest moment came the following year at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea where India won the 4x400 m relay gold as she won the individual bronze. Poovamma is currently ranked second in the 400 m category in Asia as she sets her sights on the upcoming World Championships to be held in London in August 2017.
But for Povamma, her greatest achievement is not that she has scaled the heights to reach the top of her sport in the country but the fact that she has seen the depths and has climbed back up again.