Ashwini Akkunji beamed as she sat in the Netaji Subhash National Institute of Sports here, remembering the days when she dreamt of winning a medal.
The athlete from Siddabura village near Mangalore realized that dream last November when she won the gold medal in women's 400 m hurdles at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. Ever since then, there's been no looking back for Ashwini with more medals, prize money and acclaim coming her way and a jubilant family back home who are planning to get their old mud house renovated.
When Akkunji, as she is popularly known, started winning medals, the people in her village became aware of track and field competitions. Her gold-winning effort has brought a dramatic change in Siddabura, and many now want their daughters to follow in Ashwini's footsteps.
"Ever since I won gold in China, my father Chidananda Shetty has been flooded with phone calls to enquire about athletics," said Akkunji as she sat under a banyan tree in the sweltering Patiala heat on the sidelines of the Indian Grand Prix. "The role is best suited to my father who motivated me to go running."
"In a village where higher education is distant dream for girls, the whole concept is changing. Parents want to send their daughters to college where there are better facilities for sports," said the role-model of the village where 60% of the school-going children are female.
That attitudes have changed in her village is evident, Ashwini told this correspondent. Earlier, when she trained in her running shorts, it raised eyebrows. "Things have changed now and when I run in shorts no one frowns. More girls will be able to sport shorts while practicing," she said elatedly.
Ashwini who was also a member of the victorious 4x400 m women's relay team in the Delhi Commonwealth Games, senses the positives of having taken up athletics eleven years ago.
"My family had tough days. It was difficult for me to buy a good pair of running shoes," explained the youngest of the three Shetty siblings whose family depended on five-acres of agriculture land. "We suffered a lot but the bad days are gone," she said with a smile on her sun-tanned face.