How race walker Bhawana Jat created history juggling a ticket-collector's job
Despite all the challenges and hardships, Tokyo-bound race walker Bhawana Jat has made it to Tokyo Olympics as well as shattered the national record
In the extreme chilly nights of the village Kabra, situated 60 miles southwest to Ajmer in Rajasthan, a 15-year-old girl set out on her daily walk. Mind you, the temperatures are dropping below 8°C and this adolescent is out wearing shorts and a vest.
She is not a fitness freak on one of her fashionable morning walks but a daughter with a dream for a better life. She wants to walk and walk and just walk till she crosses the finish line and hopefully, one of the firsts to do so. This is not some fictitious Monday motivation I'm blabbering about but the actual routine of our Olympian and racewalker, Bhawna Jat.
Bhawna got out at 3 am in the morning for her walks so as to avoid the villagers sneering at her for wearing shorts in the open. She was told to focus on household chores and avoid going out as much as she did. But her father, a mason in the village of Kabra, didn't choose to agree. Bhawna still says that if not for her father, then she might have been grazing the family cattle now.
Born to a poor agricultural family, Bhawna did not even know athletics till she met the physical education teacher at the village school. Hiralal Kumawat was taking a few of the school children to a district-level competition on a weekend and stumbled upon a 13-year-old Bhawana grazing her cattle as usual.
Kumawat asked Bhawana if she wanted to join the troop. Bhawana, being a late addition to the competition, couldn't find any slot in the events that she wanted to participate in. There was a lone slot left at the 3km race walking event and hesitantly, Bhawana obliged.
Without any prior experience of the sport and walking barefoot, Bhawana came second and much to the teacher's delight, found romance in race walking. She asked the teacher to train him regularly and with sheer determination to learn, Bhawana came fourth in the school nationals, a year later.
Much akin to most of our 20th-century athletes, Bhawana was still walking barefoot. Not by choice, but due to her family's poor financial state.
Being the youngest born to Shankarlal Jat, Bhawana's love for sport could have become a liability at home. Shankarlal, in debt of 7 lakh rupees for his son's treatment for a rare mental illness, continued to support Bhawana to pursue what she dreamt of.
"I took part barefoot and then in slippers for my early competitions," she says while speaking to the ESPN. "My brother bought me a pair of shoes for Rs 500 when I was told I couldn't compete in rubber slippers anymore."
There was a major breakthrough for Bhawana in 2014. She won gold at the west zone juniors and a subsequent silver at the national junior championships. Although, the financial fistfight continued which meant that when Bhawana was offered a job by the railways in 2016, she pounced on the opportunity.
The thought of sacrificing the job to focus on a race-walking career never crossed her mind and understandably so. The job brought financial security to the family. But at the same time, a promising athlete was losing those crucial hours of training on track.
It was a daunting task for Bhawana to juggle a ticket collector's job at Howrah station in West Bengal with her endurance training.
"The only way you get paid leave in order to train is if you medal at the inter-railway competition," she says. "I wasn't able to medal in 2017 because I suffered typhoid just before the competition, but I was able to get a bronze in 2018."
This medal allowed Bhawana to put in those extra hours in training and eventually show her potential. She stayed true to the trust of her employers winning the inter-state railway competitions and the national championship in 2019.
"She's a natural walker," says her current coach Gurmukh Sihag while speaking to ESPN. "Her action is very clean and she almost never commits faults. Even when she had an injury and suffered from typhoid, I was very confident that she would eventually become a very strong walker. After the inter-state gold, I was very confident she would qualify for the Olympics if she kept her focus on training."
But the tragedy never seemed to stop. Despite all the national success, railways did not grant her leaves for the following season in order to qualify for the Olympics.
"I was very confused about what to do," says Bhawana. "I knew that I couldn't improve in Kolkata because the weather makes it very hard to train and recover. But I wasn't getting a leave. At the same time, my eldest brother is suffering from a mental illness and I had already taken a loan to treat him. And I knew that if I had to train with Sihag sir in Rohtak, I would have to spend money staying in a paying guest accommodation and also on my diet and kit."
Bhawana's brother Prakash, an athlete himself, took a break in his career to support his family so that his sister wouldn't have to feel the financial burden of the Jat family. Prakash worked in Jaipur and insisted Bhawana continue her training.
Amidst this chaos, Bhawana's grit never faltered. She continued to train as she would. When Gurmukh Sihag was asked about Bhawana's regimes on track, he didn't mince his words. "She is the most dedicated athlete you can hope for," he says.
Well, that showed in her performances as well. After clocking an hour and 38 minutes to win the championship in 2019, she went almost 9 minutes quicker in the 2020 national championships clocking 1:29:54 in Ranchi. Hence, clearing the Olympic qualification standard of 1:31:00 by over a minute and shattering the national record too, in the process.
Sihag was not surprised, though. He was used to watching her clock at such incredible times during her training. Although, holding her nerves on mega-events is what he expected.
What is peculiar about Bhawana is her ability to make minimal errors. Racewalking is a tough sport. You need to keep one of your feet grounded at all times and you're not allowed to bend your knee. When she broke the national record, Bhawana did not make a single error in the course of 20km. That's the mark of a professional.
Now, as she had announced herself in grand fashion, the challenges ahead were enormous. She hoped to participate in the Asian championships in 2020 but the pandemic meant that she could not participate in any major international event before flying to Tokyo in 2021.
Although, in her efforts to fight for that elusive spot among the Olympians, she has shown what resilience can do. While we start to crib about every minute discomfort in our everyday luxury, people like Bhawana are idols who preach how to focus on the controllable without cribbing about the uncontrollable.
In her quest for Olympic success, Bhawana has also inspired a million small-town girls to pursue their dreams irrespective of societal misogyny. The responsibility though lies with the administration to nurture the present Bhawana and allow many more Bhawanas to blossom and bring glory to our motherland.