Kerala gymnast breaks barriers, sets sight on 2024 Olympics
Six years ago, when Mehrain S Saj visited a private gymnasium here with her younger brother, she instantly fell in love with the sport. In November, the 15-year-old turned her dreams into reality when she became the overall champion with two golds and a bronze at the 56th National Artistic Gymnastic Championship in Jammu. She is Kerala’s first gymnast to achieve this feat.
Trained by D Jayakumar, a former national champion and Railways coach, Mehrain has now set her sights on the 2024 Paris Olympics and aims to win the country’s first medal in the sport. She estimates that she will be training for 9,000 hours in the run-up to the Games.
“Gymnastics was never in my mind. When I went with my father to enrol my brother I saw boys and girls rolling like rubber dolls. I fell in love with the sport instantly. Once my parents agreed, I started training and took more interest in the artistic version,” says Mehrain, who idolises Russian legend Aliya Mustafina and American gymnast Shawn Johnson.
“The national event was challenging as many seasoned players were there. My coach’s words came to my mind, ‘give your best, unmindful of challenges’. The big surprise was I won gold in the vault table,” she adds.
A Class 10 student at Cotton Hills Girls High School in the state capital, Mehrain trains for five hours six days a week and follows a strict diet.
“Her attitude towards the sport is good, and she is hard-working, and grasps techniques and nuances quickly. Usually in gymnastics people with short stature will do well, and her body is tuned for this. If she gets proper exposure and training she can become a world-class gymnast,” says Jayakumar. “I expected a single gold, but when she got the overall championship, I was thrilled. She is the best gymnast in the country now,” he adds.
Mehrain’s father Sajjudin, a revenue inspector with the state government, said that at first, many eyebrows were raised in the community when she took to gymnastics. “I told them sport is a sport, and you can’t mix it with belief. Gymnastics has become a passion for my daughter, and we encourage her.”
“A promising gymnast, she came up through hard work and determination. The government will do everything possible to help her scale new highs,” said state sportsminister V Abdul Rehman.
Wedded to sport, Mehrain’s coach Jayakumar sold his property to start a gymnastic school, DJ Sports Club in Vayalikada in the state capital. He chargesonly those who can afford it. Others get free lessons. Now, 50 students train at his academy, which has produced 10 national level sportspeople. Equipped with basic training equipment, he has been trying to get support from the government and private sponsors for help, but to no avail.