“The girls in our village have to work a lot and then are married early. I did not want that sort of life for me, I wanted to leave the village, go out and do something big.”
This is what Annu Rani, India’s national champion and record holder in javelin throw, had to say when asked why she took up the sport. And this is exactly what she has done – rising from Bahadarpur, a village Uttar Pradesh, to qualify for the Athletics World Champions in London later this year – the first Indian woman to achieve this.
She broke her own national record and clinched the gold medal at the Federation Cup National Senior Athletics Championships last week, with a record throw of 61.86m to seal her London berth. The qualifying mark for the World Championships is 61.40m and World No 15 Rani is the first Indian woman to cross the 60m mark.
But Rani is no stranger to firsts, having set five national records in the last three years. The 24-year-old has been steadily notching distance on her throw and accumulating firsts. In 2014, she broke the national record with a 58.83 m throw at the National Inter-State Championship. Later in 2014, she won the bronze medal at Asian Games in Incheon with a throw of 59.53 meters, bettering her record. In 2016, she crossed the 60m barrier with a 60.01m throw at the Open National Athletics Championships. In 2017, she crossed the 61m-mark. Her personal best during training is a fantastic 63m, and national coach Kashinath Naik believes that she can reach 64-65m on her day – a distance that wins medals.
The year noticeably missing from this list in 2015 – the year both she and her coach Kashinath Naik, a former medal-winning javelin thrower himself, admit her performance slumped, for various reasons.
“Once an athlete reached the level of winning medals [referring to her 2014 Asian Games bronze], we got a little wary of injuries. This is why we couldn’t get a lot done in 2015. We were worried about injuries and couldn’t increase her training, we just maintained what she was already doing,” Naik told Scroll.in in a telephone conversation.
“From 2016, we have trained completely hatke [different.] Jo hoha dekha jaye, injury se darna nahi hain [No matter what happens, we decided to train hard without worrying about injuries,] Naik explained.
The new training regimen was more intense that what she had done so far – more strength training, more sprints, more time spent at the gym to improve muscle conditioning. Rani is 5.5” in height, which is generally considered a detriment for javelin throwers. But under Naik’s tutelage, she trained to use her height to her advantage. She practiced with a javelin weighting 800 grams (the average javelin weighs 600 grams) and reached a good distance with that as well.
“We trained so hard that if the Olympics was today, she would have won a medal. She has thrown almost 64-65m at the training ground, which was the throw that won silver and bronze at the Rio Olympics,” he added. And the results of Naik’s discipline and Rani’s dedication showed, with two more national records since 2016 and the World Championships berth.
The qualification has not only given Rani a huge opportunity at the global stage, but freed her mentally as well, burying the burden of past failures and starting afresh with renewed confidence.
“The focus during training was to qualify for World Championships. But in a couple of competitions I didn’t do well and that put me under pressure mentally. In training, I have thrown up to 64 metres, in the last Olympics the bronze medal-winning throw was 64. So this time in training I gave it my all,” Rani told Scroll.in.
“I have crossed 64 in practice but couldn’t do it in competitions. So now I am working on becoming stronger mentally and giving my 100%. I have not gone home for a year, despite everyone calling me. Desh ke liye medal leke hi jaungi ghar [will go home only after I have won a medal for India],” she added.
Rani’s single-minded focus is not surprising, considering how she managed to convince her conservative family to let her pursue sport. “I’m from a village in Uttar Pradesh and my father is a farmer. He was against me becoming an athlete initially, because he believed that girls shouldn’t play sport. I tried hard to convince him to let me play, I cried and pleaded with him. Finally, since I was the youngest at home and everyone was fond of me, he allowed it. He probably thought I’d play a little and end up at home,” she laughed as she recounted.
But eventually her father came around, and even ensured that nothing came in the way of her dreams. “Once my performance started becoming better, my father let me play without opposition. Some time back, after I had played state and national level, we faced a financial crunch, but my father didn’t want me to stop playing and managed to get the money needed to support me,” she said.
In fact, her entire family is focused on helping her achieve her dream. Naik recounts how her brother used to ask him for coaching tips for Rani, when Naik was just another player. It is back then that he saw the potential in the young girl. But she officially became his student when he conducted his first camp as coach in 2013. Naik began training her even before Rani moved to the national camp in Patiala. She used to stay in a PG before and over the last few years spent a lot of time with Naik and his family. The coach talked about how his students were like a family, they often come over to his house and his wife treats them to home-cooked meals.
After overcoming all her early struggles at home and recent struggles on the track, Rani is now back on course, armed with fierce focus and guided by the disciplined hand of her coach. The 24-year-old does not own a cell phone and has never seen a movie theatre in her life. But her coach shows her motivational Bollywood films like Sultan, Dangal and Sachin: A Billion Dreams at house instead. “Aapka ka kaam Olympics main medal jeetna, aur kuch nahi [Your job is to win an Olympics medal],” Naik tells her, and she believes that whatever her Sir is doing, it’s for the best.
Naik has mapped out the road ahead for his protégé as well – to ensure she will be among medals at the international level. “World Championship main 64-65m main medal aa hi jaata hain, toh humaara aim hain ki World Championship main medal jeete, baaki 2020 Olympics main to 100% medal aana hi hain, [A throw of 64-65m gets you medals at World Championship, so the aim is to get a medal there, and then a medal at the 2020 Olympics is 100% certain]” asserts Naik. An Olympics medal is the ultimate goal for the former Commonwealth Games medallist turned coach, a goal he is confident Rani can achieve.
Rani echoes her coach’s thoughts word for word in another conversation. “Abhi medal sirf pe focus hain, [my only focus in on winning a medal],” she said. With the Asian Championships in July and the World Championships in August coming up, Rani is closer to her goal than she has ever been. From Bahadurpur to London, Annu Rani is fulfilling her childhood dream of getting out of the village to make her name, one javelin throw meter at a time.