Rupal Chaudhary's grit, long trek for a track, drives bigger dreams
- The 16-year-old from a village near Meerut won the U-18 race at the national 400m meet this week, raising hopes of a bright future
Track and field is the buzzword in Indian sport since Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold at the Tokyo Olympics. It is as good a time as any to grab attention with a strong performance, yet it is not often that a junior outperforms seniors at a national level meet.
Rupal Chaudhary did just that this week, the 16-year-old from Uttar Pradesh sprinting to victory in the U-18 girls’ category of the 3rd National Open 400m Championships at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday. Her timing was better than the winners in the U-20 and senior women’s category.
It was reward for the hard work being put in by the youngster. A top junior in the country, Rupal travels from Meerut to the Nehru Stadium twice a week to train on the synthetic track as there are no facilities in the Uttar Pradesh town.
The only daughter of a farmer—she has a brother—Rupal has been travelling to Delhi with her two coaches—husband-wife duo of Vishal Saxena and Amita— since 2017, a distance of more than 250 km, which includes 50km from her village, Janipur to Meerut.
“I’ve to undertake this journey to achieve my mission, which is the 2024 Paris Olympics. The government’s Kailash Prakash Stadium in Meerut doesn’t have any facilities for athletics,” says Rupal. She was fastest among women in the focused 400m meet, clocking a personal best of 53.73 seconds. Her emotional celebrations with Amita showed what it meant to Rupal.
It was Rupal’s third win at national level. Vandana Sharma, who won the women’s event in the absence of some of India’s top 400m runners, clocked only 55.01 secs. The teenager has steadily improved, clocking 55.37 secs at the 2019 junior nationals after breaking a long-standing state record at the UP state meet.
“The 2016 Rio Olympics brought me into sport after I read about the achievements of Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu,” says Rupal. The 11-year-old girl pestered her father to take her to the stadium. “My father didn’t want me to take up sport as people in my village were against any kind of liberty to girls. My mother stood by me and asked my father to take me to the stadium for training.”
Rupal’s first important step was winning the 400m at the 2018 state meet in Lucknow. “That win made a difference, I realised I have the potential to race at the top level,” says Rupal. “I could have chosen another sport, but my financial situation didn’t allow that. Athletics was less expensive,” she says.
“Athletics is my lifeline. I was so upset when people in my village asked my father not to allow me to take up sport. I decided to change that mindset by achieving something respectful in sport and now I see that change in people of my village,” says Rupal, who admires Hima Das, who holds the national record of 50.79 secs.
Rupal has the 10th fastest time in the U-18 girls category in the world this year. Her focus is on building strength and speed. “I am looking for my first international exposure. I feel if I can improve my strength and speed, I can easily breach the national record of Jisna Mathew in the U-18 category (53.14sec).”
Rupal’s successive medals at the national level have changed her father Ombir Singh’s thinking too. “When I stopped Rupal from doing sport in the beginning, she went on a hunger strike against my decision. Finally, her mother compelled me to take her to the stadium.
“It wasn’t easy for me in the beginning, but now I feel proud, people give me more respect because of Rupal’s success in sport. I am happy I was forced to change my decision then,” says Ombir, whose son is training to join the Uttar Pradesh Police. “Maintaining a balance between spending time for Rupal’s training and managing my field was quite difficult, but I had no other option.”
Like most sprinters, Rupal too wanted to run only 100m and 200m in the beginning, but her coach Saxena, a former national-level athlete, encouraged her to take up 400m. “Her (Rupal) height and build was best suited for the 400m, so we thought of diverting her attention to the event, and it’s a huge success now,” he says.
A 200m silver medallist at the 2006 South Asian Games at Colombo and gold medallist in the 4x100m relay, Saxena and his wife Amita—she is a medallist in the Asian Grand Prix—have high hopes on Rupal. They want her to take a shot at next year’s Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
India have a good number of women 400m runners, although the focus of the national federation in recent times has been on the relay event. A strong runner capable of challenging the timing of Hima Das would be welcome, especially with the latter struggling with a back injury.
“Rupal is progressing and we hope she qualifies for the Asiad and Commonwealth Games. If everything goes according to plan, Rupal would be making it to the Indian squad for the Paris Olympics,” says Saxena.