Family resistance, ongoing loan: Manju jumps hurdles to become country's top race walker
National record holder in 35km race-walking, Manju Rani has overcome financial and family problems to become India's top race-walker.
Manju Rani had to jump a few hurdles before she learned to walk. It was an arduous task for a class six student to secure permission for staying away from the eyes of a protective family, living in Khaira Khurd -- a small village in Punjab's Mansa district -- and pursue a career in sport.
Her grandmother was apprehensive and denied permission but a supportive father understood the burning desire of a mother-less child to become an athlete and eventually let her move to the SAI centre, Badal in Muktsar district.
It was not a bad gamble. Manju, 24, is now the country's top racewalker. "It took a lot of cajoling to convince my father. It was not normal to let a girl child live away from her family. The SAI training centre was 100kms away from my village. My 'dadi' kept denying the permission," Manju Rani told PTI.
"One day over a cup of tea, finally my father agreed. But he said to me, 'Pagg nu daag na layee' (keep the family's honour intact)."
Manju kept her promise and has now brought laurels to the family and the state of Punjab by becoming the first Indian woman to clock a sub-3 hour effort in a 35km race walk.
That winning timing of 2:57:54.00 in Ranchi at the National Race Walking Championships in February was also good enough for the Asian Games qualification.
In Bhubaneswar, competing at the Inter-State National Athletics championship, she won gold again but could clock only 3 hours, 21 minutes, and 31 seconds due to scorching heat.
Manju did not aspire to become a racewalker initially. She was a handball player and had appeared in a selection trial at a school but found that the sport was not on its roster. A coach there suggested her to try race walk.
"I had never race-walked before that but I managed to finish third. The coach was impressed with my performance and advised that I must go and train at a better place if I have to grow into a better athlete," she narrated the incident.
"My father was supportive and my journey began in 2015. In three months, I had won a bronze medal at the state-level junior championship. Then I got a silver at National School Games. I was at Badal centre till 2017."
In 2021 Manju finished fourth at Senior Nationals. The next year she got a silver with a national record and the dream came true when she won the National Championship this year in Ranchi and also breached the Asian Games qualifying mark.
Her family, especially her grandmother is proud of her. "They are proud of me. Now they say every family should have a daughter like me. The resistance against my training was for just a month. I have got complete support from my family."
While there are many popular events to pick from in track and field disciplines, why did Manju opt for the less-popular race walk?
"You need to lift your knees in a certain way while running. But even when I was running, it appeared as If I was walking. My coach Preetpal Kaur noticed and advised that I must train as a racewalker. The gait is a God gift, it comes naturally to me," she explained.
The initial struggle to get the family backing was over but more challenges awaited her. Her father had to mortgage their two-acre land to manage the expenses.
When Manju moved to the National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) in Bhopal, she had to arrange for accommodation herself.
"My name was yet to be added to the list, so I spent about 5-6 months in rented accommodation. I had to arrange for it on my own. "Also, the shoes are pretty expensive. It costs about Rs 17000 for a pair of shoes and they last just one month. I got some support when I got a job with Sashastra Sena Bal (SSB) in 2018," she said.
"I had got a salary of Rs 21000 at that time but still a lot of money was required for good training. Shoes, supplements, diet, it is a costly affair to be a sports person. My father mortgaged his agricultural land. Much of the money was sent to me and a bit was spent on my grandfather's treatment," she added further.
However, the financial constraints were still troubling her, and she had to take a personal loan of Rs 8 lakh in 2019.
"I am paying a monthly installment of Rs 17000 out of my Rs 32000 salary. The loan is for seven years. But the amount helped me. The good shoes are available in Japan and UK only. I order shoes from there," Manju said.
"If I had a sponsorship, it would have helped but as of now, I am managing it on my own. There is no point in training with inferior shoes. It will lead to injury. I have no other option. I have to do well in my sport," she concluded.