To understand what's going on in MR Poovamma's mind - what she thinks about her medal prospects in the women's 400m in the Incheon Asian Games - you need to know a bit of psychology. Otherwise, chances are you may not grasp the finer points of the life of an international runner beyond the oval track.
Poovamma, the country's leading quarter-miler, reveals that her mother, Jaji, is a great source of inspiration. "Her presence gives me inner strength."
Way back in 2003, Jaji coaxed Poovamma to accompany her to a local athletic meet in Mangalore and made her participate in the under-14 category. Since then, Jaji, a housewife, has never missed a single competition of her daughter at the domestic level.
In June, on a hot, muggy day in Lucknow during the senior inter-state meet, Poovamma gave it her all in the searing heat, cracking the 52-second barrier, winning in 51.73 seconds.
It was not just the best effort of the year, it was one of the best in more than half a decade at the national level. In 2008, Mandeep Kaur had clocked 51.74 in a domestic meet before the Beijing Olympics.
Poovamma's also qualified for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where she clocked 52.88 and bowed out in the semifinals. "It was a good performance considering the weather and the heavy downpour during the event," she said.
Her mother's presence, says Poovamma, made all the difference. "When my legs were aching and lungs gasping for breath, I thought of my mother. It just gave me that added strength to drive ahead of the rest," she said of her personal best timing.
Recently, Poovamma's mother suffered a back problem and expressed her inability to travel to Patiala to see her daughter run in the Federation Cup, which was also the trials for the Incheon Games. "It was for the first time in 10 years that my mother was not in a position to accompany me. Perhaps, she was in a lot of pain.
"I felt something missing. I felt as if I was not as strong as I should have been close to competition," she said, adding, "I called up my mother, pleaded and cried on the phone." Hearing her daughter's plight, Jaji came rushing to Patiala, forgetting her own pain and misery. Poovamma did not disappoint. She won the 400m event in 52.48 seconds.
Poovamma is one of the several athletes who are currently training for the Asian Games at NIS, Patiala. HT caught up with her after one of those gruelling training sessions. A long conversation revealed her reverence for her mother - and her mother's unstinted support for her daughter - has made all the difference in Poovamma's career.
Experts rate her medal chances very high, and self-belief is only adding to the confidence. "She is not just a medal hope, she will fight all the way to gold," said N Ramesh, her coach at the national camp.
Ramesh feels Poovamma's faith in her abilities has made her a better runner. At the continental level, she is ranked second to Bahrain's Kemi Adekoya. "I am determined to fight till the end," says the tall runner.
Poovamma, though, will miss her mother in Incheon "but a blessing on the phone will do the trick". "I wish she was there, but will call her," she said, her eyes wandering into the emptiness of the stadium.
Ramesh said his ward would also anchor the 4x400m relay team. But the responsibility to shoulder a billion hopes has not added to the pressure. "There is always some kind of pressure when you are on the track, but I just focus on my strength... I just keep running my own race," said Poovamma.
The 2010 season was supposed to be the highpoint of the 4x400m relay team. It bagged back-to-back gold medals in the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the Guangzhou Asian Games. But the doping scandal that rocked the team in 2011 saw the golden girls facing a barrage of insults. Overnight they became outcasts. The national squad even failed to earn a London Olympic berth in 2012.
But there is hope this year. If chief coach Bahadur Singh is to be believed, the national team has a good chance of defending the title. "It's a rejuvenated side. We have faith in the athletes," he said.
There are at least six runners, according to Singh, who are capable of running the 400m below 54 seconds. "Other participating nations don't have depth; it's advantage India at Incheon," he said. He continues. "As per the continental chart, Japan are marginally ahead of us. China are third and Bahrain fourth. The battle for the top spot will be between these four nations."
Away from the track, the spotlight in field events will be on men's discus throw, where the US-based Vikas Gowda is supposed to be the best bet. And the gold at the Glasgow Games had come at an opportune time. "He has a great chance at Incheon," said the chief coach. Gowda, though, will face a stiff challenge from Iranian throwers.
According to Singh, India should bag at least 12 medals, including three gold. He also gave the thumbs up to triple-jumpers Arpinder Singh, the CWG champion, and Renjith Maheswary. "If he is able to jump better, he can spring a surprise."