The moment Khushi Sadanda Umesh crossed the 200m line ahead of her much-fancied training partner Rezoana Heena Mallick at the Youth Nationals in Udupi, the Pune youngster looked slightly baffled. The 400m specialist couldn’t believe she had bagged the gold with 24.58s, making the Athletics Federation of India’s qualifying cut of 24.79s for next month’s Asian Youth meet to be held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“I was just looking around and it wasn’t until I saw my coach that I realised I had won,” says Khushi who trains under Bengaluru-based coach Arjun Ajay. Ajay, credited for unearthing two-time Worlds Junior medallist 400m runner Priya Mohan, has a knack for spotting talent. In the recently concluded 400m nationals his wards won golds in the U-16, U-18 and U-20 (women’s) categories with Bengals’s Rezoana breaking the U-16 national record with 53.22s on the clock.
The teenager from Nadia, Bengal was the favourite to win the U-18 200m title on Sunday after clocking 24.23s (NR 24.20s) in the heats a day earlier but Khushi got the better of her in the finals. Khushi may have been a little surprised with the results but coach Ajay knew all along that her ward was capable of outwitting her opponents.
It was a small victory for Ajay who has been able to make Khushi cut down almost 4 seconds in less than 40 days since joining him. “She was clocking around 58s (in 400m) since the last year and her mother called me if I could train her. I had seen her run in other junior meets and saw potential in her. I love taking up challenges and it has been tough so far,” says Ajay.
Ajay, a taskmaster, doesn’t mince his words. He says it was a “headache” to initially coach Khushi who joined him in Ooty at the end of February. The toughest task for him was to make her believe in her own abilities. Khushi admits lack of self-belief is one of her drawbacks.
“I overthink. I always feel that I am probably not good enough as other runners out there. But I am trying to change and today’s win will definitely help,” says Khushi who is perhaps one the most articulate young athletes on the circuit. The Pune resident has an excellent academic track record, scoring 97% in her class 10th boards.
“I love running and reading. I am also interested in human anatomy and biochemistry and would like to go on and research more on the topic. I have a huge shelf of books back at home and even carry some during my competitions,” she says.
After Sunday’s medal Khushi and her parents have to take a huge call on her further training plans. To train under coach Ajay, she would have to move her base to Bengaluru but that might affect her schooling in Pune. “I don’t know right now. I just want to go home and rest now,” says the youngster who has run four races under the unforgiving Udupi Sun in the last couple of days.
Coach Ajay feels it would be unfair to narrow down on a specific technical area that he’s worked on with her in the last few weeks. “Everything, we had to work on everything. From her breathing to attitude, we had to improve everything,” he says.
The first major change Khushi had to make after reaching Oooty for training was to convert into a hardcore non-vegetarian to gain natural protein. “We are pure vegetarians and don’t cook non-veg at home. But we have no issues with her eating. In fact, we would ask her to eat eggs but she wasn’t ever fond of it,” says father GS Umesh.
One of the biggest flaws he saw in Khushi’s technique was her arm movement. The youngster had no rhythm and it was affecting her running more than she realised. “Her hands would move sideways and there was no control. The legs are naturally stronger but the arms need to be worked on. On the breathing part, runners have to put in extra effort and breath more intensely while running to get in more oxygen. She was breathing normally,” Ajay explained.
Ajay is pleased with the results his wards have achieved in the last two national meets bagging five gold medals but he’s not content as yet. “ I will be only satisfied when they go on to the Olympics and do well because I believe in them,” he says.