Due to ticket delays, the Indian mixed relay quarter- milers reached Cali, Colombia, for the ongoing U20 World Championships on the eve of their heats.
Reaching the team hotel around 9 pm and spending the next morning completing accreditation formalities meant the quartet of Barath Sridhar, Priya Mohan, Kapil and Rupal competed in the heats without even a practice run.
“They stepped onto the track for the first time straight to compete,” says Priya’s coach Arjun Ajay.
The youngsters did not let the pre-race hurdles hamper their performance as they broke the U20 Asian record in the heats (3:19.62s) and improved the mark in the final (3:17.76s) for the silver medal. They finished just .07 seconds behind winners USA and two seconds better than third-placed Jamaica. India were the bronze medallists in the last edition of the Jr Worlds in Nairobi where the squad was the same but for Rupal’s inclusion in place of Summy.
— Athletics Federation of India (@afiindia) August 3, 2022
The competition at this edition was tougher as countries like the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan and Germany did not participate in Nairobi due to Covid concerns.
“Last time, when we won the bronze but a lot of people called it a lucky medal because several countries did not take part. But this time, no one can raise such questions. We have answered our critics. We would have got the gold if not for the last-minute push by the American ( Kennedy Wade),” says Arjun.
With a fixed M-W-M-W format for the competition, Rupal was strategically placed in the final leg to put her long legs to use. The Meerut athlete, who ironically doesn’t even have a synthetic track in her hometown, tried her best to chase down the American but Wade did not lift her foot off the pedal in the last 50m.
“We were going for gold and the plan was that Rupal would push in the last 80m or so. But Wade surprised us by giving that last push,” says Arjun.
There was a lot of commotion in the run-up to the U20 Worlds with the Indian team announced just days before the competition. The team was then stranded in New Delhi for a while with ticket delays adding to the pressure.
Arriving on the eve of their heats meant virtually no time for practice, forget acclimatising and getting over the jet lag from the 30-hour-plus flight via Amsterdam. Coach Arjun knew jet lag would be a huge issue, so he dialled up a skater friend from Colombia for ideas.
“We figured out that to match Colombia’s pattern, we would have to stay up all night on the flight for at least 8-9 hours. Glad it worked well for us,” he says.
It was Priya and Rupal that anchored India’s race in Cali. They still have their individual 400m event semifinals and finals left apart from the women’s 4x400m relay event.
Just hours before the mixed relays finals, Rupal (52.50s) and Priya (52.56s) ran the 400m heats to qualify for the semis. If the duo competes in all the events lined up, they will end up running seven 400m races in the span of six days.
India’s run, especially Priya and Rupal’s effort, caught the eye of a lot of US university coaches. “My Instagram DMs are full of messages from coaches who want to know if Rupal and Priya would consider joining their universities on scholarship. I told them they will have to first complete their degrees,” says Arjun.