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"Di, you must come to Majuli. I am personally inviting you to my home and I am sure you will love it," 19-year old Runjun Pegu tells me. And with that, a bond was formed. I had never spoken to her before, never had an opportunity to meet. Here I was just finishing up a conversation with the U20 Girls Gold medalist at the 1st National Javelin held in Lucknow in September 2018. Perhaps, it is a testament to her goodness that she, a little-known athlete from Assam, did not hesitate twice to seriously extend an invitation based on the simple fact that during the course of the conversation, I happened to mention my love for travelling and Majuli being on my bucket list. Runjun Pegu is now one of the frontrunners for U21 Girls Javelin Throw at the ongoing Khelo India Youth Games in Pune- a challenge she is more than ready for. "Right now, I am not getting the chance to represent India," she says. "I still have a long way to go before I can say that I have done something I am proud of."
Big boots to fillThis kind of self-awareness is what makes an athlete. The build-up to the Tokyo Olympics next year coupled with some fantastic performances by Indian sportspersons in non-mainstream sports has sparked something big in the national consciousness. More people than ever are now following the state of Indian sports quite keenly. Corporate brands have slowly started moving on from their obvious choice of cricketers and athletes like Hima Das and Neeraj Chopra- India's prodigal hopes for a first Athletics Olympic medal have emerged as frontrunners in what is being seen as the start of a 'revolution' of sorts. At the intersection of the inspiration that both these athletes bring, is young Runjun Pegu- a javelin thrower from the state of Assam. "I grew up in a family where I lost my father when I was a year old and my mother when I was 5. My eldest brother at the time of was mother's death was just 17. So, in this situation, sports was the last thing on any of our minds. Survival came first." "Since I was too young to be included in family decisions, I used to go out to the fields and just play with the local boys. Either football or cricket," she says Majuli, India's largest river island, has no dearth of natural playing fields and an environment so close to nature- it would be a welcome break from the dusty city life. As Runjun says, that is what sparked a love for the outdoors for her. "Even now, I look forward to the time I will be going home," Runjun, who currently trains at NIS Patiala, says. In November 2017, she bagged the Silver at the 33rd National Junior Athletics Championships 2017 in the Girls U20 category with a throw of 45.63m. The winning throw registered 46.06m. A year before that, she finished with a bronze at the Junior Nationals in Coimbatore with a throw of 43.02m. The National Record for the Women's U20 Javelin Throw touches the 50m category (Pushpa Jakhar, Haryana, 50.21m set in 2014). Runjun clearly has her work cut out for her if she is to make it big in the competitive world of Olympic sports. But she remains unfazed by it. "The first time I was sure that sports are what I am meant for was also the first time I ever stepped out of Majuli. It was district-level kabaddi game. There's something so empowering about playing a game and winning it. It cannot be described into words," she says. "I had an older family member who also has a national medal in Shotput and Discus Throw. Seeing my enthusiasm, she decided to teach me. She made me participate in District and State meets. I won Gold on both occasions in Shotput and Discus. That's when I got the opportunity to train at SAI in Guwahati." "The first problem you face when you grow up in marginalised states is dealing with the mindsets of those close to you- family neighbours. When I excitedly told my family about going to SAI, they immediately said no without even considering it. Granted, there were financial constraints as well but we never had the exposure or the mindset to take sports seriously."
The gap between national and internationalAt the 2015 Junior Nationals (Image: Swaminathan Gunasekaran) It was Guwahati at an athletics meet in 2014 where she first picked up a Javelin. With provisions there for an athlete to participate in a maximum of three events, Runjun signed up to compete in Javelin Throw in addition to Discus and Shotput. Despite initial reservations about never having touched a Javelin before, her first try registered a throw of 28m. That is what caught her coach's eye. This happened three months before the Junior Nationals in Vijayawada in November. With merely three months of training, Runjun won the Bronze in the U16 category with a throw of 37.18m. The U16 National Record at the time was 39.09m. She topped it off with a Silver in the Nationals next year in Ranchi. So what holds her back from converting a steady start in the national circuit to results worthy of international selection? In her words, it is because she has always been left fending for herself at crucial junctures in her game. "The atmosphere at SAI Guwahati was never one that encouraged athletes to gain exposure. I wanted to improve and I looked for a better coach. But it was a long time before I finally found one." "I now train with Commonwealth Games medalist Kashinath Naik," she says. "He used to train Annu Rani when I first approached him- one of my idols." "At around this time, the resistance I initially got from my family was less. Iss time tak local newspaper me mere National medals ke khabar aaye the. That encouraged them to let me go." "Javelin is a very technical discipline. You need a perfect combination of speed, strength and jump. You need to use maximum muscles to master throwing the Javelin in the first place. I started out by learning outdated techniques. And now, before learning anything new, I must unlearn everything I already know." "I would say now that Assam's attitude towards sports has really changed because of Hima (Das) di. Before her, I have seen even National medalists getting absolutely no care at all. Now that I am in Patiala, I know the value of each and every medal." "After I won the National Javelin Title, I was felicitated by the state. A few years back, koi soch bhi nahi sakta tha aisa." "That is what one good performance does," she observes wisely. "It changes mindsets. Someday, like Hima, I want to do that as well." Runjun was felicitated by the state of Assam for her 2018 National Title in Lucknow. "I am mostly a loner. These days, there's only one thing I tell myself. If I have come this far despite every obstacle, there is no reason why I cannot go further. The process may be a little slow but I will do everything in my power to get there." The glamour of the Khelo India Youth Games has provided a suitable platform for many stories like Runjun's to come to the limelight. More than creating champions, we learn that sports command a lot more importance at the very grassroots of India than meets the naked eye. Assam and Indian Javelin will soon have a new kid on the block. Her name is Runjun Pegu.