With big brother watching, 'ziddi' Reshma Patel walks into record books

Reshma Patel (no.344) leads the 10000m race walk event at the Federation Cup Junior Athletics Championships. AFI

A few months ago, Inderjit Singh made an angry phone call to his youngest sister Reshma. He'd just found out that the 16-year-old -- an aspiring race walk athlete training in Dehradun -- wasn't training hard enough. Reshma's coach had told him as much. The training restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in India had made it hard to practise. Several of Reshma's compatriots had dropped out and motivation was low. She'd even skipped a couple of sessions, Inderjit was told.

"He was really upset. He told me if I was going to waste any more time, he'd pull me out of training and bring me back to our village in Allahabad (Prayagraj) and I could go and get married off," recalls Reshma. Inderjit wasn't serious but just wanted to scare his little sister straight. "I wasn't actually going to do that but I needed her to think I was," he admits. Reshma certainly believed so. "She cried a lot and promised she wouldn't train with anything less than complete seriousness," recalls Inderjit.

The tough-love therapy seems to have worked for now. On Tuesday evening in Bhopal's TT Nagar Stadium, Reshma Patel won the women's 10000m race walk event with a new national record of 48:25.90, erasing the old mark of 49:16.51 at the 18th Federation Cup Junior Athletics Championships. The first call she made was to her brother, and it was a happy one this time. "It was worth it," Inderjit explains of the previous, less-than-pleasant one. "It seems harsh, but I need to do whatever it takes so that she doesn't struggle later," he says.

Inderjit knows a thing or two about struggle. Although recurring knee injuries have now caused him to miss several seasons of the sport, he's an athlete of no mean achievement. The 27-year-old was one of India's top long-distance runners in recent years. He has wins in the Mumbai and Bangalore half marathons, was a national champion over the 10000m in 2012 and has represented India at the 2010 Youth Olympics. But he's also known plenty of hardship. "Our family was very poor. My parents are landless farmers and we have always struggled financially. I've sold vegetables on the street for many years just so that our family could make ends meet," he says.

Sports was a way out for Inderjit. He earned a scholarship to the Lucknow Sports Hostel and would rise to become one of India's top runners. Through it all, he says, he always wanted to give his two siblings -- Reshma and 18-year-old Roji -- the same opportunity.

"It was difficult," he says. "Once I learned that women's sport existed, I knew that I wanted my sisters to become athletes. In the beginning, I encouraged them to run in the village. There wasn't any formal training or anything. Roji was a little older, so she could run, but Reshma was only four or five years old, so she would just accompany her. It wasn't easy. Ours is a conservative region. There were so many who criticised and abused me. I was still in the sports hostel, so I couldn't even buy shoes for them," he says.

It was only when Inderjit earned a scholarship and subsequently a job with ONGC that he could do more. In 2016, he brought Roji over to Dehradun where he had a government accommodation. A year later, he brought over Reshma. "He wanted us to come to Dehradun. It's hard to train in the village. It was difficult to focus there because the quality of training was poor. There are no coaches and there would be boys who would tease us when we went to practise," says Reshma.

In Dehradun, the two girls began training under Anoop Bisht, who'd coached multiple national and international athletes including 2016 Olympics race walker Manish Rawat. Although they started out as long-distance runners like their brother, both sisters switched to the race walk early on. It's a move that's paid off with the two featuring among the brightest prospects in the sport in India. Roji won the 10000m race walk in U-20 category at the 2019 Junior Nationals while Reshma took the gold medal in the 3000m race walk at the same event -- in what was her first time competing at the national level.

Although he was a runner, Inderjit supports his sisters' choice of race walking. "It's good that they found the event that they were suited for early in their life. In my case, I went through several sports from handball to long jump before I settled on distance running. I took so long to make a mark because I never knew what I had to do. I've been able to support them and they have been able to make the right choices," he says.

Although Reshma is still early in her career, coach Bisht has high hopes from her. "Once she sets her mind on something, she is very ziddi (stubborn). Then it's impossible for her to shake her determination. She lost some focus during the Covid pandemic but after her brother's talk, she's become very serious about her training once again," he says. That intensity was what encouraged her coach to register her for the race. As someone born in 2004, Reshma was very close to being underage for the U-20 race but Bisht was confident she would succeed. "She was very nervous. She said 'how would I play with all these badi didis (elder sisters)?' But she got another call from her brother and that motivated her," he says.

"He's very strict. He told me before the race that he knew that I had the ability to win gold. He didn't want me to win anything less than that," Reshma recalls. Even though his methods seem harsh, Reshma understands why he uses them. "I don't know if I would have got this far without my brother's help. I owe everything to him but he never wants anything. He tells me not to think about money or anything. The only thing he wants from me is a gold medal and records. He keeps telling me he wants me to be a star," she says.