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How Jyothi Yarraji escaped the marriage trap to break NR 12 times

23-year-old hurdler Jyothi Yarraji, the new Asian champion, comes from an area where girls are expected to marry after Class 10.

How Jyothi Yarraji escaped the marriage trap to break NR 12 times

Jyothi Yarraji in action at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championship earlier this year - not the Asian Games! (File Photo/IAAF)


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 13 July 2023 4:21 PM GMT

In her teenage years, Jyothi Yarraji had not been the fastest girl in her locality, in her school, or even in her class. Now the fastest hurdler in the whole of India, the 23-year-old is happy she was able to escape the fate of all those girls who beat her back then.

“There were so many girls who were better than me. I wasn’t even the fastest in my section. These days, I feel bad for them - those I had looked up to - because they got married. Now they tell me they wish they had come out then, marriage has not made them very happy,” Jyothi told The Bridge.

Jyothi’s parents - a security guard and a domestic help in Visakhapatnam - too had initially been adamant about marrying her off after school. Going by her recent results on international tracks, that would have been a huge loss.

After a blazing run of form in 2022, when she rewrote the 100-metre hurdles national record four times, Jyothi has broken the 60m hurdles national record five times within 19 days this year.

Never having run a 60m race before, she shattered a 7-year-old national record (8.34 seconds) by registering an 8.20s finish in the last week of January. In four subsequent races, she registered 8.18s, 8.17s, 8.16s and 8.13s.

Nine national records broken in nine months - from May 2022 to February 2023 - is an unprecedented feat in Indian Athletics. Add to this that three times previously her national record had not been ratified because either doping authorities had not been present, or the wind had been more than the legal limit.

READ | Wind turns villain for Jyothi Yarraji

“My body is such that it can pick up things slowly, I’m not someone who can learn things at one go. Maybe that is the reason my timings are getting better with every race,” was Jyothi’s modest theory as to why it seems like she breaks records for fun.

Having broken through the ranks last year, Jyothi’s timings in the 100m hurdles is already in the range of the eight finalists at the Tokyo Olympics. Going strictly by numbers, a historic medal or two at the Asian Games and Paris Olympics might not be very far out of reach.

But it could have been so different so easily.

“My parents didn’t know anything about sports, except cricket, because that is everywhere. They wanted me to study, marry and settle down. That is the mindset of all parents in India - that is how they imagine security and safety of their daughter,” said Jyothi.

Jyothi’s former class teacher, who is now the headmistress of the Port High School in Visakhapatnam, Anupama Devirathnam, said it was remarkable that an athlete like Jyothi could have emerged from the circumstances she was born in.

“Most of the girls here come from low class labourer families with not much money. There is a clear division: boys are sent to convent schools, girls are sent to government schools. Girls’ parents usually want to marry them off right after their Class 10 exams,” she said.

“It is remarkable that an athlete like Jyothi has risen from such a situation to reach where she has,” she added.

Helping hands

Jyothi Yarraji remembers the PE teacher in her school, Srinivasa Reddy, as the first person who spotted the athlete in her. She remembers how this teacher made her believe she had the fire inside her, how he gave her money when she had none and how he managed to convince her parents that she could have a future in sports.

“Now I have many people around me, but when I was younger, Reddy sir and one of my seniors - Gautham - were the only ones who believed in me. From their own pockets, they would give me Rs 500 for spikes, healthy food. In 2015, that was a big amount. My family would earn around Rs 7000 per month. Forget about asking them to buy me shoes, they didn’t want me to do sports at all. One of those spikes I wore for many years,” Jyothi recalled.

A conversation with this PE teacher, Srinivasa Reddy, Jyothi’s first coach, leads to further insights about the circumstances she overcame.

“Even though this school is in Visakhapatnam, there is a slum area surrounding the school. People are very poor here, they are not aware of sports. The common mindset is that playing sports will spoil discipline of girls; girls are usually married after Class 10,” he said.

This PE teacher even remembers one of Jyothi’s friends - Pavani - who was a gifted athlete who had to give up sports because she had no support at home. He also recounts two other national campers - B Venkatalakshmi (400m) and G Alekhya (800m) - who he unearthed in the 2000s.

The playground in Jyothi Yarraji's school (Supplied)

But none as successful as Jyothi.

“What makes Jyothi special is her inherent body speed. She is very lean, she was even leaner back in school. My practice was to make girls run a few laps around the school ground and observe their body structures. Jyothi was always a natural,” Reddy said.

But despite all this, one thing Jyothi is unable to understand is why there are still no sports facilities in Visakhapatnam.

“There is no synthetic track, no academy, no food for children (wanting to pursue sports), no facilities, no hostel. Even now when I go home, I can’t train. In 15 days, my whole body collapses without training. My only question is why does Vizag not get facilities? Had they been there, even better athletes than me would have come out,” she said.

For all of Jyothi’s natural talent, the first time she was exposed to an electronic starter - a common device at international events, as opposed to the manual guns used in India - was in the 100m hurdles race in May 2022 in Cyprus, where she got 13.23s, the first of her nine official national records.

The Jyothi Yarraji super project

Jyothi Yarraji feels she could have been part of the Tokyo Olympics if she had the support system she has now.

“There was no support at home, no physios to work on injuries, no good food. It was a bad time for me,” she said.

Her coach at the Reliance Foundation centre in Odisha, James Hillier, said Jyothi was ‘rescued’ by coming to the academy in 2021, adding that she would probably not have been an athlete if she had not been ‘rescued’.

Jyothi agrees.

“Doing hurdles scared me then, what if I fall, I used to think. Everybody at the Reliance Foundation sat down and prepared a plan for me. Slowly I came back.”

Within a year, she got her first call-up to join the Indian team in hurdles and the relay team for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

“Hima Das, Srabani Nanda treat me like a child. I did a mistake while giving the baton during the CWG race, but they all believe in me. Even now, Hima calls me, texts me, saying she is proud of me. Srabani passes on her experiences from Jamaica, her experience with elite athletes. During CWG, my entire time was spent with them in a room, they taught me not just how to run but so many other things,” she said of her senior relay teammates.

At the Open Nationals soon after this, she became the first ever Indian woman hurdler to go sub-13 and won the ‘Women Athlete of the Games’ title. She won the 100m and 100m hurdles at the National Games, earning the title of India’s fastest athlete as well as the fastest hurdler.

The qualification cycle for next year's Paris Olympics begins on July 1. The mark for women's 100m hurdles is set at 12.77s, inches away from Jyothi’s personal best of 12.82s.

The Asian Athletics Championships in Thailand in July, World Athletics Championship in Budapest in August, and then the Asian Games in September in China will offer her chances to close that gap and give fruition to India’s latest Athletics super project.


Update: On July 13, Jyothi Yarraji became the new Asian champion, winning India's first ever gold in 100m hurdles at the Asian Athletics Championships. In 2023, she has run a sub-13 second race as many as 6 times so far.

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