On Saturday afternoon in Tokyo, Kamalpreet Kaur got a call from her long-term coach Rakhi Tyagi. Kamalpreet had just accomplished a remarkable feat, coming second in the qualifying round of the women's discus throw event and making the final. Plenty of celebrities, actors and cricketers had praised the 25-year-old from Kabarwala, Punjab.
Tyagi's call, though, had very little to do with Monday's competition or with advising her how to deal with the pressure of being in an Olympic final. Instead, she shared an Instagram video story posted by actor Kareena Kapoor. "I'm a huge fan of Kareena Kapoor. I just told her, Kamal, I don't care what happens on Monday, but we have to meet Kareena Kapoor. You have to get me to meet Kareena Kapoor," Tyagi laughs.
"Haan (yes) ma'am but then we also have to meet Virender Sehwag," Kamalpreet replied. Kamalpreet is a huge fan of the former Indian opener, known for his explosive batting and irreverence for the big stage. That's exactly how Kamalpreet has also approached the Olympics -- the grandest stage of all -- herself. At a competition where so many Indians have been affected by the weight of expectations, Kamalpreet almost casually made the throws that made the rest of the field take notice.
It's something Kamalpreet has dealt with for a while, even after breaking the national record earlier this year and then bettering it in her very next competition. Her best throw of 66.59m placed her in the top six throwers in the world this year. Despite all of this, Tyagi wasn't even given accreditation to travel to Tokyo -- unlike every other athlete in the Indian track and field contingent. Indeed, over the last week, Tyagi has been directing Kamalpreet's training in Tokyo over video calls.
Perhaps it can be put down to her speedy rise that few noticed her streak into Olympic contention. Kamalpreet wasn't an athlete growing up, although her father Kuldeep says she loved watching local cricket and football competitions. "I only decided to try sports after class 10 because I wasn't very good in studies," she had once told ESPN. "I got just 33% in my class 10. So I thought I might as well try this out."
Even that almost didn't happen. When she went to the Sports Authority of India Training Centre (STC) in Badal, Punjab, she found that the annual admissions had been closed. "But she was very insistent that she play sports, so she took admission in a day boarding school near the STC," she says. Kamalpreet stayed there for a year before she was admitted to the STC. "The main thing they saw in her was her size. She was 5'8" back then and about 60kilos. They want big strong athletes so that's why they took her in," says Tyagi.
Tyagi herself had joined the STC just a few weeks later. A rookie coach on her first assignment with the Sports Authority of India (SAI), she had first had doubts about coming to the STC in Badal, a location chosen because it was the home village of the powerful Badal political family. "Initially I wondered where I had got myself into. It was in the middle of nowhere," she recalls.
But as she got down to work, she soon saw something she recognised as special. "I saw Kamalpreet when she had just joined the STC. She was participating in throwing events. She had even competed at the district and state level but only for fun. But there was something that stood out about her. Most kids are shy. But Kamalpreet came up to me and said, 'Ma'am, can you teach me how to compete in the discus?'" recalls Tyagi.
She agreed and so Kamalpreet, then 17, got her first taste of a competitive training routine and practice schedule. "She's probably the most hardworking girl I've had. She'd give 200 percent on the field each time," says Tyagi.
There were still doubts, including Kamalpreet's awareness that she was a late starter to the sport. Tyagi put those doubts at ease. "The best thing about the time we got Kamal is that she had never trained properly until 17. She had just been a regular girl and had grown big and strong. Especially with a power event like the throws, you can't start kids off at a young age, their bodies aren't ready for it. Now mashallah she is 6 foot 1 and 110kilos. She can take the strain," she says.
While Kamalpreet was good enough to win tournaments at the state and national levels, she was never able to make a mark on the international scene. Although she's competed at two Asian Championships in 2017 and 2019, she finished outside the medal table in both competitions. She couldn't even make the cut for the Indian team for the 2018 Asian Games as she fell sick just before a crucial selection tournament. Just shortly after missing the Asian Games, though, she won gold in the Inter-Railways Championships with a throw of 61.04m.
Through all this, she had Tyagi's backing. The two share a tight bond -- Tyagi spends weekends at Kamalpreet's family home, while the remainder of the week, coach and student stay in the staff quarters.
"Ours is a like a family relationship. I've never told her we need to get this medal or anything. I've always said, 'I'm going to be your coach no matter what. It's not like I'm going to hate you if you don't win a medal. Do your best without tension. I'm proud of you either way'," says Tyagi.
Kamalpreet's parents, too, played a supporting role. While many fellow athletes of her age were married early, she never faced any such pressure. "They are very simple people. They'd get happy with small things. Once she got a job with Railways, they were satisfied at least she would stand on her feet. Then they put no pressure on her."
Indeed, while Kamalpreet continued to train under Tyagi, she was also encouraged to play other sports. One of her favourites is cricket. Because of that, says Tyagi, it's a problem to play with Kamalpreet because she always insists on batting. And she doesn't play defensive shots. "She's like Sehwag, when she has the bat in her hand, she's only going for fours or sixes. All the other kids in the academy hate it because on that day, they know they have to be running on the boundary."
For all that latitude, though, the failure to make the Asian Games in 2018 stung. But it also gave Kamalpreet, then 22, a sense of purpose. That's when they decided they'd try and qualify for the Olympics. "We didn't really have any expectations from the Games, but we just wanted her to go for a big tournament at least once," says Tyagi.
Training began in earnest in 2019 but then the pandemic struck. The STC was closed and both Kamalpreet and Tyagi were forced to return home. With all gyms shut, there was no way for Kamalpreet to train even by herself.
Some of India's more high-profile athletes got gym equipment delivered to their doorstep by the authorities but Kamalpreet made do with what she had. "She didn't have weights, so she used flowerpots to do bicep curls and used to squat and do shoulder presses using her family bed," says Tyagi.
When the lockdown ended and training resumed, Tyagi was more confident than ever about her student, who hadn't lost much strength in the lockdown. "Once we started training at the STC, we didn't look back," she says. So when Kamalpreet broke the national record at the Federation Cup in March this year, with a throw of 65.06m, it was something that Tyagi had expected. And when Kamalpreet made a throw of 66.59m a few weeks later, both athlete and coach said they would go even further.
She's giving signs that this could be possible in Tokyo with her performance in the qualification round. How she manages the pressure that comes with the final could decide whether she makes history. In some ways, Tyagi says Kamalpreet is better equipped to handle anxiety than most.
"She's like Sehwag, when she has the bat in her hand, she's only going for fours or sixes. All the other kids in the academy hate it because on that day, they know they have to be running on the boundary"
"I'm her coach and I'm supposed to calm her down but she's usually really relaxed. We love watching movies. I prefer Bollywood films but she only wants to see Hollywood horror and thrillers. Some weeks ago, she convinced me to watch The Conjuring and Annabelle, and I was so terrified I ran into the bathroom. But she was just happily watching as if nothing happened," recalls Tyagi.
Horror might have little on the Olympics, which is proving to be a bit of a nightmare for Indian athletes. Tyagi says she's doing all she can to ensure Kamalpreet doesn't feel a hint of pressure.
"Before the Olympics, Kamal really wanted me to come with her. Eventually even after I sent her off at the airport, she would constantly call me and say 'Ma'aam I wish you were here'. I told her Kamal I'll try to come but if I can't it shouldn't matter. I've told her to just eat and sleep right and the rest will take care of itself. She's a pure vegetarian so I've sent her laddoos and homemade protein bars so that she doesn't have any issues with her food either."
On Saturday, Kamalpreet showed just a touch of nervousness on her first throw, which went a distance of 60.29m. She then tried to follow Tyagi's advice and simply go hard at the next two throws. She went a little hard on the second throw and recorded a mark of 63.97m, the second best in the competition at that point and enough for her to know she had qualified for the final. Then, after calming herself, she flung the iron disc 64m, the mark for automatic qualification to the final. "She called me later and said, 'Ma'am after the first throw I was very tense but in the third throw, I relaxed and it went really well.'"
Once she got back to the Games village, Kamalpreet once again started sending her coach videos of Tokyo and life in the village. "We didn't talk about her competition. She's staying on the 15th floor of her building. So she had gone to the balcony and was saying, Look I'm on the 15th floor, I'm so scared, my legs are shivering.' And I'd reply, 'Then get back inside!' But I could see Kamal was enjoying herself," says Tyagi.
That's the mindset Tyagi hopes Kamalpreet will have on Monday evening too. "I've told her to just have fun in the stadium. It's just a game, don't take too much stress. Ball aye to ghuma ke chauka maarna hai bas. (If you get a ball to be hit, just swing and hit it for a four)," she says.