Ten years ago, 10-year-old Rohidas Jadhav found himself in a remand home old and was transferred to Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal (SSM) in Sagroli, a remote village 80 kilometres from Nanded, for rehabilitation. Around the same time, Sunita Kanna's mother was struggling to make ends and was forced to hand over her daughter to the SSM balakgram (orphanage) for a better future.
Ten years later, both Rohidas and Sunita were among the 48 children who were enrolled in the Sagroli Sunrise Sports Project aimed at creating long distance champions from among underprivileged kids and finally found a direction for themselves.
Last month, Sunita, along with one of her friends from the orphanage, Savita Kamble, stormed to a fourth and fifth finish at the Mumbai Marathon, taking everyone, including their coaches, by surprise. They, however, were tragically denied the prize-money as they were not wearing the electronic timing chip. Neither could afford it. While Sunita has already caught the eye, Rohidas too has been making his mark in the cross-country championships and is slowly graduating to half marathons.
"The project has given us an identity," says Rohidas, now 18.
The trainees of the project, majority of whom are orphans staying in the orphanage, have just a mud track inside the complex to practice on and the national highway joining Nanded to Hyderabad for road running.
Conceptualised by Deepak Kanegaonkar, this project has put a sense of belief and competition in the children of the orphanage. Says Kanegaonkar, : "We deliberated a lot on what the focus of the project should be and decided to concentrate on long distance running like half marathons and marathons since endurance was the kids' forte. The setting also requires least amount of infrastructure."
Kanegaonkar, who first came to SSM to attend a function in 2003, put forth the idea of starting a sports project here and soon his entire family got involved. Kanegaonkar and his wife look after the diet and training schedule of the athletes while their son Omkar takes care of the logistics. The project got a boost when Chennai-based IndusAge group began supporting the initiative and retired athletic coach P. I. Mhaskar joined the programme two years ago.
We now have a definite direction and have got the belief that we are on the right track," Kanegaonkar says.
The Mumbai Marathon has come as a shot in the arm for everyone associated with the project and especially for Bhagwan Nagargoje, who administers the day-to-day training of the athletes.
"The result was unexpected, these two girls have shown that they can overcome all odds with determination," says Nagargoje, who was a 400m sprinter for the Services. The SSM school has also started a separate division for athletes in the project so that their academic schedule can supplement the training. "Balancing training and school becomes demanding. So we have accepted the proposal of having separate division for the athletes and would implement it from next academic year," says Arvind Deshmukh, joint secretary of SSM.
While Nagargoje is happy with the development, he wants a gymnasium set up. "These athletes do not lack stamina. But they need strength and for that, weight training is a must," he says.
Sunita seconds her coach when she points out that she and Savita had kept pace with the leaders till the 16-kilometre mark but lacked power to up the tempo after that.
Quite like their performance , the project has started impressively. But all those involved with it are aware that the ultimate success will depend on whether they can build on this success and not run out of strength in the long run.