How Sushil Kumar kept Taranjit Kaur's dream run on course

Taranjit Kaur (no. 131), the 100m and 200m champion at the Junior Federation Cup. AFI

There was no shortage of well-wishers for Taranjit Kaur on Wednesday. The 19-year-old from Delhi had won the best female athlete award at the 18th Federation Cup junior athletics championships, following her gold in the 200m sprint that had preceded a victory in the 100m dash two days ago. Though not records, her timings were impressive, especially coming in what was the first national athletics meet in nearly a year. Even as she fields calls and congratulations, Taranjit can't wait to get back to Delhi. "The first thing I'll do is go to Chhatrasal Stadium and show my medals to Sushil sir. He has been a huge support for me," she says.

While she's now considered one of the brightest prospects in the country, only two years ago Taranjit seriously considered hanging up her boots following a serious injury that threatened to end her running career. And at her lowest point, it was a pep talk from one of India's greatest heroes -- two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar -- that motivated her to carry on.

Taranjit remembers the exact date -- August 13, 2018 -- when she became the victim of a hit-and-run accident. She'd just completed a training session and was heading home on her scooter when she was sideswiped by a car. Among the injuries she suffered was a badly shattered collarbone. The bone was set incorrectly at first, which resulted in another lengthy period of rehabilitation. Half a year passed before she could return to the track.

Taranjit had been a talented athlete -- with medals at the state level and even a bronze in the 100m sprint relay at the 2018 Khelo India Games. But the injury and slow pace of rehabilitation took a toll. "It was a very hard time. I couldn't run and even when my collarbone healed, I wasn't able to use my arm properly. I came under a lot of depression. I didn't see a reason I should continue," she says.

Sunita Rai, who'd coached Taranjit ever since she first showed up at New Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium, tried to support her but ultimately called on Sushil to talk to the young girl. Although plenty of talented young athletes train at Chhatrasal Stadium, the complex is primarily famous for its elite wrestling program that's produced multiple World and Olympic medallists. None are more famous than Sushil, who also holds an office position as the Sports officer of the Delhi government.

Sushil might be one of India's greatest sporting icons, but he's even more of a legend at Chhatrasal. "We often see him training at Chhatrasal Stadium. Imagine having an Olympic medallist along with us. How many young athletes can say that? He's always willing to talk to young athletes and guide us but most of us don't even dare speak with him," says Taranjit.

Sushil made sure to sit with her and spoke plainly. "He told me I needed to put the injury in the back of my mind and start training again. He said he'd at least understand if I'd injured my leg or something. He said I needed to take this break and make a new start in my career. I might not have listened if anyone else had said it. But when Sushil sir says something, you have to believe it," she says.

Taking Sushil's advice to heart, Taranjit threw herself once more into her sport.

She'd been running for four years already at that point. Taranjit first showed up in front of coach Rai as an overweight 13-year-old whose parents had sent her to run in order to lose weight. Within six months of practice, she'd improved enough for Rai to start training her as a specialist sprinter. Although her progress was steady if not spectacular, coach Rai expected her to start at least competing with the best juniors around the time of her accident.

Even after finding the gumption to continue her sport, things didn't immediately fall into place for Taranjit. She missed out on the junior state meet due to illness and consequently missed the junior nationals. Although she would qualify for the National School Games -- winning a silver medal at the 2019 edition of the Games in Sangrur -- that result wasn't considered for selection for the Khelo India Games in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic that followed meant that Taranjit wouldn't have any competition and even her training was affected owing to restrictions put in place by the lockdown. "It has been really hard to train. For several weeks, all she could do was train in her home and I'd coach her over the phone. It was only once the lockdown ended that she was able to come to the stadium," says coach Rai. Taranjit made the time count. "She is someone who won't shy away from working. When she got the opportunity to train, she made the most of it. We had only six months to prepare for the junior events this year so I had her practise two sessions each day and she did all of that," says Rai.

She continued to work even when prospects outside the track appeared grim. "Her family's not well off. It's always hard for her to afford supplements or even equipment. Even this year she wasn't sure about competing in Bhopal or (the junior nationals) in Guwahati because her family only had enough money to send her for one competition. Luckily her college coach raised funds to allow her to travel to both competitions," says Rai.

In Bhopal though, Taranjit's hard work appears to have paid off. Although her injury continues to trouble her, Taranjit willed herself through to the finish line in Bhopal. "It still hurts a little. A normal collarbone is straight but mine is curved. So it always hurts when I pump my arms when I sprint. But like Sushil sir says, I try to block the pain. The sprint double and especially the gold medal in the 100m, in a time of 11.70s, has catapulted her into possible contention for a place in the Indian 100m relay team. That's Taranjit's goal as well. After having made an impression at the Junior Federation Championships, she'll have more opportunities to perform at the Junior Nationals in Guwahati next month and then the Indian Grand Prix and the senior Federation Cup in March. "I have an aim to be in the same team as Hima Das and Dutee Chand. They are the golden girls of Indian running. I want to run with them and hopefully break their records one day," she says.

While this is a target coach Rai now believes is achievable, she admits she was nervous prior to the Junior Federation Cup. In all the years Rai had coached, no Delhi girl had ever won a sprint gold at the national level in either the junior or senior level. She happened to share as much with Sushil when he happened to pass by a practice session a few weeks back. "I was standing with our coach when Sushil sir heard this. He said even India hadn't won an Olympic medal in a long time when he went to Beijing. He said just believing something wasn't possible would end up beating Indians before the competition itself. He said like he made it possible for other Indians, 'Tu bhi set kar sakti hai (you can also make it possible for others)'. That was such a huge motivation for me," says Taranjit.