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The moment Khushi Sadanda Umesh crossed the 200m line ahead of her highly fancied training partner Rezoana Heena Mallick at the Youth Nationals in Udupi, the Pune youngster was a little confused. The 400m specialist could not believe she bagged the gold with 24.58s, making the Athletics Federation of India’s qualifying cut of 24.79s for next month’s Asian Youth meet to be held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“I was looking around and it wasn’t until I saw my coach that I realized I had won,” said Khushi who trains under Bengaluru-based coach Arjun Ajay. Ajay, credited with unearthing Worlds Junior 400m runner Priya Mohan, has a knack for spotting talent. In the recently concluded national 400m her wards won gold medals in the U-16, U-18 and U-20 (female) categories with Rezoana Bengals breaking the U-16 national record with 53.22s on the clock.
The teenager from Nadia, Bengal was the favorite to win the U-18 200m title on Sunday after clocking 24.23s (NR 24.20s) in the heats a day earlier but Khushi got the better of her in the finals. Khushi may have been a little surprised with the results but coach Ajay knew from the start that his ward could defeat her opponents.
It was a small victory for Ajay who has been able to make Khushi cut down almost 4 seconds in less than 40 days since joining him. “She was clocking around 58s (in 400m) for the last year and her mum called me if I could train her. I had seen her run at other junior meetings and I saw potential in her. I love taking on challenges and it has been tough so far,” said Ajay.
Ajay, a taskmaster, does not mince his words. He says it was initially a “headache” for coach Khushi who joined him in Ooty in late February. The hardest task for him was to make her believe in her own abilities. Khushi admits that lack of self-belief is one of her weaknesses.
“I’m overthinking. I always feel like I’m probably not good enough like other runners out there. But I am trying to change and a win today will definitely help,” said Khushi who is perhaps one of the most articulate young athletes on the circuit. The Pune resident has an excellent academic record, scoring 97% in her class 10th boards.
“I love running and reading. I am also interested in human anatomy and biochemistry and would like to continue to research more on the subject. I have a huge shelf of books at home and even carry some during my competitions,” he said.
After Sunday’s medal Khushi and her parents have to take a huge call on her further training plans. To train under coach Ajay, she would have to shift her center to Bengaluru but that might affect her education in Pune. “I don’t know at the moment. I want to go home and rest now,” said the youngster who has run four races under the unforgiving Udupi Sun in the last few days.
Coach Ajay feels that it would be unfair to limit a specific technical area that he has worked on with her in the last few weeks. “Everything, we had to work on everything. From her breath to her attitude, we had to improve everything,” he said.
The first major change Khushi had to make after reaching Oooty for training was to become a hard core non-vegetarian to gain natural protein. “We are pure vegetarians and we do not cook non-veg at home. But we have no problems with eating it. In fact, we would ask her to eat eggs but she never liked it,” says father GS Umesh.
One of the biggest flaws he saw in Khushi’s technique was her arm movement. The youngster had no rhythm and it was affecting her running more than she realized. “Her hands would move to the side and there was no control. The legs are naturally stronger but the arms need work. When it comes to breathing, runners have to make an extra effort and breathe more intensely when running to get more oxygen in. She was breathing normally,” Ajay explained.
Ajay is proud with the results his wards have achieved in the last two national games bagging five gold medals but he is not satisfied yet. “I will only be satisfied when they go on to the Olympics and do well because I believe in them,” he said.