Bhawana sets national 20km walk record, qualifies for Tokyo
Bhawana wiped away years of disappointment on Saturday, breaking the national record with victory in the national race walking championships in Ranchi, becoming the first Indian woman to achieve Olympic qualification in the 20km event.Updated: Feb 15, 2020 23:54 IST
Even seven months ago, Bhawana Jat looked far from a champion 20km race walker who can match steps with international rivals. She won gold at the Inter-Railways athletics meet, but managed only 1 hour, 36 minutes as her employers didn’t give her leave to train. This despite the Eastern Railway employee, posted at Howrah, having been selected under the sports quota.
However, Bhawana wiped away years of disappointment on Saturday, breaking the national record with victory in the national race walking championships in Ranchi, becoming the first Indian woman to achieve Olympic qualification in the 20km event. She won gold at 1:29.54 secs, breaking the national mark by almost two seconds.
The time was well under the Tokyo Games standard of 1:31.00.
Priyanka Goswami of Uttar Pradesh narrowly missed the qualifying mark, clocking 1:31.36 secs to come second.
Soumya Baby’s previous national mark of 1:31.29 was set in 2018.
Tokyo will be the first Olympics for the walker from Rajasthan, who took up the event a decade ago while in school. The 24-year-old though has been unstoppable of late, winning three titles in the last seven months. Having gone through testing times, Bhawana attributes her performance to perseverance.
“I had to take leave without pay to train since my past performance wasn’t recognised by my department. But the gamble paid off,” she said.
The daughter of a small-time farmer from Kabra village in Udaipur district, she is hopeful of getting her department’s backing now. “Doing something extraordinary was the only way to get some attention,” she said.
With less than six months to go for Tokyo, she is aware of the need to sustain her level, especially fitness. “That shouldn’t be a problem because I will get better facilities in the national camp.”
It has been a gradual rise to the top. In the 2016 nationals in Jaipur, Bhawana won silver in the 10km race for juniors. It helped land a job in the railways under the sports quota. It helped financially, but having to do regular eight-hour shifts meant she didn’t get time to train. The struggle continued for two years until 2018. “It was a tough time for me, but with the hope of better days, I managed to stay fit,” she said, recalling her initial problem finding a job.
At last year’s nationals, she trailed in 10th. “A week before the competition, I was down with fever. It spoiled whatever chances I had.” However, she bounced back last August, winning the Inter-Railways title, and a bigger win, in the Open Nationals, followed two months later. Ranchi is her third title in seven months.
After winning the Open nationals, she decided to focus on the season-opening domestic meet in Ranchi. To achieve her targets, she made Jaipur her training base.
“Hard work was the only way to reach the top. I often did 400m repetitions 20-25 times in one session, clocking 90 secs for each 400m and taking a mini break of 40 secs in between. The training sessions were tough, but it added to my confidence,” Bhawana said.
Her long-time coach Sita Ram, a former men’s 20km race walk national champion, wasn’t surprised with her effort on Saturday as she had clocked 1:30 in training. “We were confident she would repeat the performance in competition too,” he said.
However, Bhawana said she has moved on. “I’m not getting along well with Sita Ram. I have a personal coach now. He is a former sprinter (Gurmuk Sihag),” she said.
Her next target is to clock 1:28. ‘’It would help me finish strongly in the Olympics,’’ she said.
The 2016 Rio Olympics winner—China’s Hong Liu—clocked 1:28.35. The bronze medallist—China’s Xiuzhi Lu—clocked 1:28.42.