It’s 3am in the morning, a 15-year old girl in the village of Kabra in Rajasthan ties her shoelaces and starts running on a dirt track near her mud house. This behaviour is to the amusement of onlookers, mostly comprising long-distance truck drivers, at a nearby dhaba (shack), but she doesn’t care.
That was Bhawna Jat a decade ago. She practiced in the small hours so that conservative village elders, who would taunt her when she went for a run during the day, wouldn’t see her wearing shorts.
“They (village elders) said you should stay at home and do household chores,” she recalled when she spoke to the Olympic Channel.
Fending off societal pressures and misogyny and with her drive to succeed, her decision to stay out paid off as Bhawna Jat recently broke the National 20km race walking record and secured a 2020 Olympics berth.
“There was a time when we lived in a mud house and ate only two meals a day, so the feeling of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics is breathtaking, to say the least,” Bhawna Jat said.
She first picked up race walking in 2009, early in her teens, on a 200m dirt track thanks to her physical trainer in school who encouraged her to try the sport.
“I was a sheer natural, but I did smirk about the actions made while race walking,” she said. “That’s when our village elders asked us not to participate as it looked shameful. So we practiced, during the night or early mornings at 3am.”
Village elders weren’t the only problem. She recently had to choose between ensuring job security and dedicated practice hours to achieve her 2020 Olympics dream.
“I have taken a loan from private money-lenders, and I’m currently without pay,” Bhawna Jat opened up. “I have taken a loan from money-lenders of about 2 lakhs to continue my pursuit (of race walking).”
The daughter of a farmer, she admits her relatively underwhelming gold medal-winning Inter Railway Athletics meet-timing of 1 hour 36 seconds was due to lack of practice.
“I have practiced without pay for the last 300 days so it feels really good to finally reach my mark. I’ve been doing Olympic medal timings in practice, and I’m confident of doing well both in the Asian Race Walking Championships and the 2020 Olympics.”
Bhawna Jat, though, is yet to even attend a national camp for India. But she rightfully harbours podium dreams for the 2020 Olympics as her National record-breaking timing of 1 hour 29 minutes and 54 seconds would register a top-seven finish at Rio 2016.
Bhawna Jat has claimed to have done a 1 hour 28 minutes and 4 seconds finish on multiple occasions in training, and that timing would claim a bronze medal at Rio 2016.
“My target is to hit my training timing at the Asian Race Walking Championships. My first national camp will only help me do this in Japan and break the record again,” she hoped.
The Asian Race Walking Championships will act as an acclimatization race for the athletes, currently preparing for the 2020 Olympics, and if she manages her training time in Nomi, it would validate her as a serious contender in Tokyo.
The Asian 20km Race Walking Championships will be held in Nomi, Japan on 15th March.