Tokyo Olympics: Kamalpreet re-ignites India’s medal dream in athletics
On Saturday, slotted in Group B for the qualifying competition, Kamalpreet Kaur progressively got better and it appeared that if she slightly cut the elevation, Kaur could throw farther.
Ahead of the Tokyo Games, Kamalpreet Kaur’s father Kuldeep Singh said in an interview to the Olympic Channel how his daughter, as a young girl, would not eat for days if she did not win in age-group competitions. That hunger for success has always stood out in the discus thrower from Kabarwala, a small farming village in Punjab.
That zeal has stood out at every step. It gave her independence, helping to avoid family pressure to get married very young like most other girls in her village. And with no interest in studies, sport was her only route to achievement.
On Saturday morning, as Kuldeep worked in his farm as usual, his daughter was demonstrating her grit and high skill at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium in the women’s discus throw qualification.
Her first throw went 60.29m. She sent the discus flying to 63.97m in her second attempt. Kaur’s third try landed on the 64m mark, ensuring automatic qualification for Monday’s final. It stood out. US thrower Valarie Allman (66.42m) was the only other competitor to achieve automatic qualification.
The remaining 10 finalists came in as the best among the rest, having fallen short of 64m. Croatia’s 2016 Rio champion Sandra Perkovic (63.75m) and Cuba’s 2019 world champion Yaime Perez (63.18m) qualified at third and seventh respectively, though they can be expected to be ready to go much further come Monday.
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Kaur is the third Indian to qualify for an Olympics discus final. Vikas Gowda and Krishna Poonia achieved that at 2012 London. On Saturday, slotted in Group B for the qualifying competition, she progressively got better. It appeared that if she slightly cut the elevation, Kaur could throw farther.
“I was feeling nervous before the throw. But after the first attempt, I felt better. By the third throw I was confident and that is why I touched 64m,” she told PTI.
“I think I will be confident during the final. I feel I can better my personal best (66.59m at Indian GP4 in June) and win a medal for the country. That is my sole target now.”
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Kaur’s top effort on Saturday was better than the effort for bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She has thus emerged a dark horse to become India’s first Olympic medallist in athletics.
Her personal coach Rakhi Tyagi is confident. “I’ve been training to build a mindset that she can throw over 67m and 68m,” said Tyagi, who is with the Sports Authority of India (SAI). She was following the event on TV. After Kaur’s first attempt, Tyagi got in touch with an Indian coach at the event, pointing out that Kaur needed to thrust her lower body more. She was given the message and made the adjustment.
In March, at the Federation Cup in Patiala, she hit a personal best of 62m but the target was 65m. “I told my coach I’m so excited I can’t sleep, how will I recover?” she told the Olympic channel.
It needed one throw to change everything. On March 19, her very first effort was 65.06m - a national record as she made the cut for Tokyo.
Tokyo is the culmination of an impressive journey.
Growing up, she did not know much about sport other than cricket. She was tall and strong for her age (now 25, she wears size 10 imported shoes) and enjoyed physical activity. In 2011, her father took her to the SAI centre in Badal, a town 35km away from their village where she was enrolled in shot put. Her coach at the centre, Preethpal Maru, was a discus thrower and convinced her to switch.
For the first two years, she found the training tough, especially waking up early in the morning. But in 2013 she was identified as a talent with potential and moved to an advanced group. Here, the best thing, as Kaur said in an interview to the Olympic channel, was that she got better food - more paneer, butter, fruits - instead of the meagre dal and roti diet at the earlier centre. This convinced her to take sport more seriously and make a career out of it.
Like with many other athletes, Kaur’s family also misses her.
“We haven’t met her four months; we’ve been in touch through video calls. She was an underdog coming into the competition but has done well to make India proud,” her brother Satinder Singh said.
“When Milkha Singh died, she was really upset. She considered him a legend. She knew Milkha ji wanted an Indian athlete to win gold at the Olympics. I hope she fulfils Milkha sir’s wish. Her doing well will encourage women to take up sports, especially in villages. Otherwise, parents prefer marrying them off young,” added Satinder, who lives in a joint family of eleven.