As Bhawana Jat strode with ease, each step propelling her forward with power, her pace quickened to calmly stretch out over the finish line. Then a slow smile worked its way across her face and into her eyes. This came moments after she set a new national record in women's 20km race walking and sealed a Tokyo Olympics quota.
The wiry race walker from Rajasthan took everybody by surprise, clocking 1:29:54s to win gold at the 7th National Open Race Walking Championships last year. The timing improved by more than eight minutes from her personal best of 1:38.30s set at the 2019 National Open Championships.
"I can't find the right words to express how happy I was to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. (Laughs) And it was my first international competition. As the saying goes, the Almighty always gives us just enough. I finished first and qualified for the Olympics in my first international competition. That is such a big victory," Bhawana told Sportskeeda.
Tracing her journey from Rajasthan's grazing lands to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics
Born in Kabra, a small village in Rajasthan's Ajmer district, Bhawana's childhood years were spent mostly helping her parents on the farm.
Growing up, she spent long hours in the fields, milking cows, cutting fodder, and grazing the cattle. This had been a daily routine for Bhawana, until the village school's physical education teacher chanced upon her and introduced her to the sport.
What is most inspiring about her career is that she began her race walking journey without any formal training in the game. She picked up the game simply by watching her teacher race and eventually joining in.
“I had never heard about race walking before. There was supposed to be a district-level competition in the village. So, I watched girls practice at the ground near my house. I also wanted to try sports. Unfortunately, there was no slot left in running events. Sir said that I could participate only in the 3km race walk. He said that I could do well in walking and I believed him," she said.
She competed barefoot and still finished second in the race. Only 15, Bhawana rode far and wide on the bicycle of her father, a mason, to take advantage of whatever opportunities she could to develop her game.
Rising above obstacles
Her efforts bore fruit in 2014 when she won gold in the West Zone junior competition. The medal opened further doors as she bagged a silver medal at the Junior Nationals the following year.
She was destined for bigger things and soon, Bhawana clinched the top honors at both the Inter-Railways competition and the National Open Championships in 2019. It was at the All India Inter-Railways Championships, where she clocked 1:36:17s to finish on top, that her career trajectory began to take an upward swing.
"In the early days, I was very shy to practice race walking. (Laughs) I was worried that the unusual gait (of race walking) will lead to mocking. People laughed every time I set out on my early morning practice. I was the only race walker in my village at that time. After people learnt that I was doing well in the sport, many girls took up race walking professionally. When I went to the village after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, many parents reached out with the hope of enrolling their daughters in race walking," she recalled.
Bhawana's parents have always backed her in her endeavors despite knowing little about their daughter’s sport. Keeping the financial hardships aside, they did all that they could to make her dreams come true.
"I live in a remote village. In the beginning, villagers often queried why I was not involved in household chores like other girls. Naturally around such an environment, my parents always had the fear of letting me play sports. But just when I qualified for the Olympics, they realized how hard I have been working all these years. That has inspired them to dream bigger. All I want now is to make them prouder," explained Bhawana.
Tokyo Olympics and her quest for a maiden Olympic glory
The Olympics wasn't something that she had even heard of before 2011. Yet less than ten years after she started training as a racewalker at the age of 15, Bhawana is competing at the Tokyo Olympics.
She was the second Indian woman to compete at the Olympics in the 20km event after Khushbir Kaur. Priyanka Goswami recently clocked 1:28:45s at the National and International Race Walk Championships to clinch the second Olympic berth for India in the women's 20km race walk.
"Nothing short of a dream," Bhawana said as she tried to put into words her journey from being an ordinary village girl to becoming the first Indian woman race walker to have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
"I have full faith in myself. If I run according to the time I want to clock (1:28:00s), who knows I may win a medal too. Even while I’m sitting alone in a room, thoughts about winning a medal start playing in my head and I begin practicing. I would perhaps lose my mind if I win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics (laughs). I have fancied Olympic medal all my life," she added.
Indeed, if that happens, a podium finish in Tokyo doesn’t look at all improbable.