Every year, at least 15 athletes win the Arjuna Award but only a handful are household names. The Field is kicking off a new series – Know your Arjuna Awardee – where we will profile some of the lesser known athletes who have won India’s second most prestigious sporting honour.

Twenty-four-year-old Khushbir Kaur was in London recently, participating in the Athletics World Championships, when she got a call. It was her mother from Punjab on the line. She had called to deliver some very important news:

“They’ve selected you to receive the Arjuna award this year”.

The 24-year-old racewalker was ecstatic with joy. “I was so excited,” she told The Field. “I was waiting in anticipation because I really thought this year I’ll get it. There was speculation that I would be nominated for the award this year. My mother’s call made me so happy that I just sat and thanked the almighty profusely”.

Some would say that it has been a long time coming. In 2014, Kaur, who was only 21 then, won a sensational silver in the 20-km race walk event at the Asian Games in Incheon. It was historic: the first Indian woman to win a silver in a race-walking event at the Asiad.


A meteoric rise

That was the high-point of a memorable year for her. In March, she won bronze at the Asian Race Walking Championship and then broke the national record in May at the World Race Walking World Cup.

But the soft-spoken Kaur said she is happy that she has won it this year, adding that her performance has spoken for itself.

But what cannot be disputed, though, is that the 24-year-old’s rise from a humble village called Nikka Rasulpur near Jalandhar to one of India’s elite race-walkers has been nothing short of meteoric. Having lost her father when she was just six, Kaur’s mother Jasbir Kaur encouraged her daughter to take up sport. In 2008 at the junior nationals, she completed her race barefoot as they could not afford walking shoes. Six years later, she achieved history in Incheon.

So it is not a surprise that the ace race walker thanks the people who stood by her on her rise to top. “Of course, yes, this is a reward for the effort I have put in,” said Kaur. “But more than thing, this award is for my coaches and for my family for all the struggles they have seen and gone through. A lot of credit goes to my coach Baldev Singh who gave me the push required on the junior stage.”

After her display at the Asian Games, Kaur aimed to fulfil a cherished dream: qualifying for the Olympics. In 2015, while training in Portugal for the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, she faced personal issues when her family had to live in a cowshed, after her college did not construct a house they had promised. But fighting away that challenge, she clocked a time of 1.33.58 in the race, bettering the qualification time of 1:35 to book her place in Rio.

Eye on Tokyo 2020

Thankfully, that problem soon got sorted out and Kaur represented India at the Olympics next year, finishing 54th in the women’s 20-km race walk.

But the 24-year-old was satisfied with her performance at the event. “Nothing compares to the experience of being on that stage,” she said. “I did my best to perform there although I was in some pain due to injury”.

As the conversation moved to the next Olympics in Tokyo, she said she is determined to do even better and talked about India can improve its prospects.

“The current government is giving a lot of important to sports, which is very good and we are seeing a market improvement,” she said. “But the one thing I realised from the Olympics is that we must start preparing for these kinds of events four to five years in advance. Preparing one year in advance will not help. There has to be a step-to-step approach towards winning medals.”

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