Competitors at the high jump U-16 girls event at the Junior national championships in Guwahati could be forgiven for thinking they were at a bit of a disadvantage compared to Pavana Nagaraj. While most participants had only been competing in the event for a few years, it's not a hard argument to make that Pavana had literally been clearing the high bar even before she had been born.
That's because Pavana's mother, Sahana Kumari, was a month pregnant with her when she competed at the Inter Railways meet in New Delhi in March of 2005. Sahana would go on to become India's best exponent in the event - she competed at the 2012 London Olympics and still holds the senior national record. Now, Pavana is following in her mother's tracks. On Saturday in Guwahati, she won a gold medal in the girls U-16 event, setting a new national record of 1.73m.
The daughter of elite sportspersons - Pavana's father Nagaraj is a former national champion in the 100m - it was probably expected that she would be one as well. "When she was small, I'd have to take her to my practice sessions and some of my competitions too," says Sahana. "Once at the 2009 Asian athletics Grand Prix event in Bangalore, after I'd won a silver, Pavana ran into the field and started jumping into the landing bed by herself. That's when she first said she wanted to be a high jumper as well," recalls Sahana, now 39.
Even when Sahana was training for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, then jumps coach Evegeni Nikitin would keep the five year-old Pavana distracted by having her make jumps using the landing bed as a trampoline. Despite those early signs though, Sahana never actually expected her daughter to become a high jumper. "My husband was a sprinter and he wanted to make Pavana one as well," she recalls.
Her daughter's first serious attempts in the high jump came as a surprise to her. It occurred at a Karnataka school meet in 2018, where Pavana was originally entered in the sprint and long jump events. Entirely on a whim, she decided to take part in the high jump event as well. She ended up winning gold. While her clearing a bar set at 1.33m was impressive enough, what stunned most was that she did so using the Fosbury Flop technique.
She'd never been coached in that maneuver, where jumpers essentially leap backwards rather than the much easier front-on scissors technique. It usually takes beginners several weeks of training, not just to master the complex procedure but also to overcome the fear of leaping backwards and landing on their back. "I'd never been taught the Fosbury Flop by anyone. But I'd seen my mother do it all the time in training when I'd accompany her. I'd try to copy that on my own. In that competition, I didn't do the jump completely cleanly, but I still surprised a lot of people, including my mother," says Pavana.
"I was just surprised that she wasn't scared at all," says Sahana.
She'd start coaching her daughter in the jumps not long after that. Meanwhile, Nagaraj would continue to work on her overall sprint training and conditioning. Although she now trains under coach Anthony Yaich at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary, Pavana acknowledges the role played by her parents. "It's something of a privilege. Not many young athletes can say they have two national champions for parents. There's a lot they know that they are able to teach me," says Pavana.
It's a bit unnerving at times, she admits. "At home, my mom will be all jolly and mother-like but when she gets to the track, she'll switch completely to coaching mode. She'll be very strict and competitive then," says Pavana.
Although she continues to participate in the 100m sprint and the long jump events that her father specialised in, the high jump is clearly something she's getting a lot better at. She's improving steadily too - her clear of 173cm in Guwahati was seven centimetres up from her previous best of 166cm at the School Games in February last year. Sahana compares her daughter favourably too.
"At 15 years-old, I had a personal best of 163cm. She's much better than what I was at her age. At these nationals, she wasn't even pushing herself since she's only coming off four months of training due to the lockdowns. She's jumping from six strides, rather than the eight she'd do if she was doing a full run-up," she says.
Already holding the U-14 national record to go with the one in the U-16 category, Pavana says she plans to push for the U-18 mark and eventually the junior record in the coming years. But the fact that she's the daughter of a highly-accomplished athlete comes with its own pressure as well.
"At our home, there are all these medals from competitions in India and Asia that both my mother and father have won. There's always the feeling that I've at least got to win the same medals myself," says Pavana. Even more than the same medals, perhaps. "My husband always tells Pavana that she has to constantly push herself. Since we already have an Olympian in the family, he keeps saying she's got to do even better," says Sahana.