She may not be talked about in the same breath as the likes of women runner Hima Das or men’s javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, but make no mistake Palakkeezhil Unnikrishnan Chitra – better known as PU Chitra - has been quietly coming up in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years and has built a strong reputation as the country’s biggest women’s middle-distance medal hope in big-ticket events.
The 24-year-old middle-distance runner has built a strong reputation with her string of power-packed performances on the international stage. Chitra appears to have worn ‘consistency’ by her sleeve ever since winning the women’s 1500m gold at the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar. Of course, her career moment came about at the 2018 Asian Games, where she scooped a bronze medal in women’s 1500m.
Interestingly, Chitra was consigned to a bronze-medal finish at the 2018 Asiad by the Bahraini duo of Kalkidan Gezahegne and Tigist Gashaw, who had won the gold and silver medals respectively. However, the Indian Railways athlete exacted sweet revenge over Tigist Gashaw when she won the gold at the 2019 Asian Athletics Championship, pushing her Bahraini opponent to silver-medal position – like the 2018 Asian Games two of the three podium finishes were orchestrated by runners from Bahrain – this time around Winfred Yavi picked up the bronze. The soft-spoken runner, who is employed with Indian Railways as a Senior Clerk, says:
A podium finish at the Asian Games as well as at the Asian Championship is a clear indicator that Chitra is getting better and better with each international outing. And with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics six months away, the expectations will be loftier from Chitra. As far as 1500m is concerned, Chitra’s personal best of 4:11.10s was clocked at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, where she had finished 30th among 35 runners. Chitra’s personal best in 800m is 2:02.96s clocked at the 2019 Inter-State Nationals in Lucknow. Chitra, who is being coached by JS Bhatia responds:
How can one forget the initial struggles Chitra endured! The ace 1500m runner was the third of four children of Unnikrishnan and Vasantha Kumari, both of whom are agricultural labourers based in Kerala. “My initial days in athletics were hugely challenging. I had two elder sisters and one younger brother and there were days when we could hardly manage one square meal. Now things are better now – both my sisters are married off while my brother works in a private company in Bengaluru,” says Chitra with a tinge of satisfaction.
In fact, the family’s plight only made her more determined to make it big in athletics. The athletics in her came alive at Palakkad-based Mundur High School, where she caught the attention of her physical education teacher. “I used to see my seniors win medals in various school competitions and it was from class 9 I started winning medals in athletic events,” she recalls.
Chitra's coach JS Bhatia is optimistic about her making the Olympic cut in 1500m as well as in the 800m event. "I have reasons to be hopeful about Chitra qualifying for the Olympics in both 1500m and 800m events. She will be competing in quite a few competitions in coming months and solid performances in those events should help her make the cut."
Chitra believes in raising the performance bar and is according high focus on areas she needs to improve. “I’m working on my speed for 1500m. The finishing is an area I want to improve my acceleration and all the hard training I’m currently undergoing will help me move to the next level,” quips Chitra, who had won double gold in 1500m and 800m at the National Open Championship in Ranchi.
One hopes that Chitra makes the Olympic cut and who knows what surprises she can spring in Tokyo!