Bhawana Jat's journey from grazing cattle to the Olympics

Bhawana Jat won the women's 20km event at the national race walking championships in Ranchi. AFI Media

Bhawana Jat continued to be in a bit of a rush on Saturday evening, a few hours after she had won the women's 20km event at the national race walking championships in Ranchi with a new national record. Her timing of 1.29.54 seconds was enough to qualify her for the Tokyo Olympics (qualification standard: 1.31.00) and that meant that the 23-year-old was scrambling to get her passport and other documents in place for international competitions in the lead-up to that tournament. "I've been asked to get my passport and documents in place for the Asian Race Walking Championships," she says. "I've never even participated in any international competition before so it's taking some time. But it's going to be the first time I'm going to fly abroad so I'm very excited."

Bhawana doesn't mind the running around right now. It's nothing compared to the mountain of pressure weighing on her just before her event. "I was under so much pressure, I couldn't even sleep before the race," she says. Indeed, there were no shortage of obstacles in her path to the Olympics. While most athletes are expected to focus on their training before an important tournament, that wasn't an option for Bhawna. "Normally Railways athletes are allowed to take leave before a competition, but I wasn't given leave," she says. "So I had to take leave without pay in order to train."

This was doubly challenging because Bhawana is her family's principal earner and had already taken a loan of Rs 7 lakh in order to treat her elder brother's illness. "Even as I was training for the nationals, I was also thinking how to pay back the interest of Rs 16,000 each month," she says. "On top of that I also had to pay for my own training equipment and boarding. If I didn't win this competition and qualify for the Olympics, I don't know what I would have done."

One look at Bhawna's career and you'd see she had already come a long way. The youngest of three children to Shankarlal Jat, a mason in the village of Kabra in Rajasthan's Rajsamand district, athletics wasn't something Bhawna had even heard of before 2010. "If it was not for athletics, I'd probably be married by now," she says. "And most likely I'd still be grazing my family's cattle." Indeed, that was what she was doing 10 years ago when Hiralal Kumawat, the physical training teacher at the village school, introduced her to the sport.

Race walking too came about by chance. "I was taking the children of the village to a district-level competition when we met Bhawana," says Kumawat. "She was grazing her cattle then but asked if she could come. By the time she came to the competition, koi bhi khali event nahi tha (the participation slots of most of the races had been filled up). The only race she could take part in was the 3km race walk. That's how she became a race walker."

With no preparation and walking barefoot, Bhawana came second. It was a result that motivated her further and the following year she came fourth at the school nationals. In 2014, she won a gold medal at the west zone junior competitions and a silver at the junior nationals the next year. For all her success, Bhawana was always struggling financially. "I took part barefoot and then in slippers for my early competitions," she says. "My brother bought me a pair of shoes for Rs 500 when I was told I couldn't compete in rubber slippers any more."

"If I didn't win this competition and qualify for the Olympics, I don't know what I would have done."

So when she had the opportunity to secure a Railways job in 2016, Bhawana jumped on it. But while the job provided her financial security, the long working hours as a ticket collector in Howrah, West Bengal meant it was difficult to train as an athlete.

"The only way you get paid leave in order to train is if you medal at the inter-railway competition," she says. "I wasn't able to medal in 2017 because I suffered typhoid just before the competition, but I was able to get a bronze in 2018."

That medal allowed her to train full time the following year and she showed her potential, winning both the inter-railways title and the National Open Championships in 2019.

"She's a natural walker," says her current coach Gurmukh Sihag. "Her action is very clean and she almost never commits faults. Even when she had an injury and suffered from typhoid, I was very confident that she would eventually become a very strong walker. After the inter-state gold, I was very confident she would qualify for the Olympics if she kept her focus on training."

Despite the wins though, she wasn't granted paid leave in order to train for the following season.

"I was very confused about what to do," says Bhawana. "I knew that I couldn't improve in Kolkata because the weather makes it very hard to train and recover. But I wasn't getting leave. At the same time, my eldest brother is suffering from a mental illness and I had already taken a loan to treat him. And I knew that if I had to train with Sihag sir in Rohtak, I would have to spend money staying in a paying guest accommodation and also on my diet and kit."

"It's my first time taking part in the Olympics and Asian Championships and I know they are big events, but I've got the confidence that I can do well."

She finally made the decision to head to Rohtak in October last year. "My other brother was working in Jaipur," says Bhawana. "He was also an athlete but had quit in order to let me focus on my career. This time also he told me not to worry. He only makes about Rs 15,000 a month but he took loans in order to help me out. But there were many other people who told me it was the wrong decision and many people laughed at me. But I had to give myself the chance to qualify."

Coach Sihag says once she made the choice to train in Rohtak and subsequently in Jaipur, there was little he expected to stop her. "She is the most dedicated athlete you can hope for," he says. "Her day was from her PG to the stadium, then back. There were no distractions. Her personal best in competition that time was 1.38.30 [at the Open nationals] but she was improving with almost every training session. When we did our weekly 18km and 22km practice races, she was finishing in the 1 hour 28 minute or 1 hour 29 minute range."

He wasn't surprised therefore to see her performance in Ranchi. "She was leading from the first kilometer," says Sihag. "And while every other walker got at least one foul [for lifting both feet off the ground], no one could raise even a single flag for her."

Bhawana herself feels she could go even faster. "I was leading from the start so I was estimating how fast or slow I had to go," she says. 'If I had a pacemaker or at least strong competition, I'm sure I could finish even one minute faster."

That's what she's hoping to do at the Asian Race Walking Championships in March and at the Olympics a few months later. "I have got a lot of congratulations from my senior officers in the department," says Bhawana. "They are promising me that I will be able to train without any worries now. I will be able to focus on just my preparation now. It's my first time taking part in the Olympics and Asian Championships and I know they are big events, but I've got the confidence that I can do well. When I was training for the race walking championships, I was under so much pressure. That's gone now."