One needs to embrace highs and lows of life | By Ashwini Akkunji

I remember running into the vast open grounds as a kid. In my village, there were no tracks, no restrictions, and no rules. We could run as we wanted to run and we could run where we wanted to run. My friends and I would go running into the jungles and into the farms in search of mangoes and jackfruits.

There were no shots to signal the start and no line to indicate the finish. Perhaps that is the only thing that is different now, as my love for running is the same as it was before.

Almost two decades ago, I started this journey. It was in coordination with the turn of the century, I remember, that I got into running. I used to run in my school competitively. I was in love with sports. As a result, there was never a doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do.

I knew I wanted to run and hopefully, one day, make the nation proud.

I competed in several nationals and youth competitions in a space of ten years. 2000 to 2010 was the time when I was going around in the national circuits.

Initially, I trained at the sports hostel and took part in the inter-zonal and the nationals. My performances in this competition were good. I won several medals, further solidifying the fact that this was what I was meant to do.

I joined the TATA Academy in Jamshedpur in 2004. For the next four years, I was in the academy. There I was in between many like-minded people. People who were looking for the same thing I was, to make the nation proud. Those four years were very enjoyable for me and very important for my growth. I got out of the Academy in 2008. Two years later, I was running at the JLN Stadium for the New Delhi Commonwealth Games.

The Highs of my Career

Winning the State Championships and the Youth competitions is one thing. However, winning at the Commonwealth Games is something entirely different. I had trained hard over the years for this moment. To represent the nation in such a big event was in itself a dream come true for me.

Standing on the track, in front of the entire Indian audience, waiting for that baton to arrive can be an anxious moment. But that is when you need to take control of your emotions and focus on what’s in front of you. That is what I did, and that is what my other three teammates did.

Ashwini Akkunji wins the women’s 400m hurdles final at Aoti Main Stadium during the Asian Games Guangzhou 2010 in Guangzhou, China.

That moment when the last one of us crosses the line is something I can’t explain in words. How can I? After all, it is in that millionth of a second, in which all your hard work comes to fruition.

I remember a packed Jawahar Lal Nehru stadium had erupted with joy, as the four of us walked over to the crowd with the flag in between us. I had never felt anything like that before.

2010 brought further joy to me. A gold at the Commonwealth Games had left me hungry for more. So going into the Asian Games, I knew exactly what I needed to do.

My teammates and I, once again, took to the track for the 4×400 metre relay. We were one of the best teams in Asia during that period and we proved it yet again by winning the gold.

For me, there was also joy at a more personal level. I had been doing hurdles in training, and going on to the track, I knew I stood a chance. Once again, I kept my head down and tried to do my best. Fortunately for me, my best landed me another gold medal.

The Lows of my Life

However, every sportsperson has to deal with the highs and lows throughout their career. I am no different. For me, the worst phase of my career started right after my Commonwealth and Asian medals, as I was accused of doping.

I won’t go too deep into the matter, as you can find everything there is to find online. In short; whatever had to happen, happened and I was given a two-year ban. As per the law, an athlete has to bear the brunt of the doping charges, whether they may have taken banned substances knowingly or unknowingly.

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Furthermore, at that time there was no mechanism to check what myself and the other athletes were taking. It was our responsibility to check what we were taking. Unfortunately, there was no place or means through which we could do the same. We took supplements, as all the athletes do. However, we didn’t know that there were banned substances in those supplements.

As a result, I along with many other athletes were banned for two years.

I found that people’s perception towards me changed during this period. They started seeing me differently. Some people weren’t willing to listen to our sides. They believed in only one aspect of the story.  For them, the other athletes and I were someone who had done something terrible, even though we didn’t.  A lot of negativity crept into the lives of many athletes, including myself, regarding the whole case.

But I couldn’t give into the negativity. I knew I had done nothing wrong and had to keep myself mentally strong. Owing to that, I kept my head down and kept training.

This whole ordeal made me understand that every sportsperson has their highs and their lows. One just needs to embrace them and keep moving forward.

Two years after completing my ban, I was back on the tracks; contributing in whatever way I could to the field of athletics.

What the Future Holds

Indian athletics is at a crucial juncture. We are not yet there, but we definitely are on our way. Athletes like Hima Das, who participates in my event, have done the nation proud. She and others like her have a great future.

However, the challenge for the country is to ensure that these athletes have everything they need; so that they can work towards that future. We cannot work as we have done in the past and expect different results.

The Indian 4×400 relay team, Manjeet Kaur, Shi Jose, Ashwini Akkunji and Mandeep Kaur, celebrate after winning the women’s 4×400 relay final.

What I am trying to say here is simple. We need better infrastructure in sports if we want our fortunes to change.

There has been progress over the years, yes. But that progress has been far too slow and ineffective. Take a look at all those nations who do well at sports. They have one thing in common- all have a world-class sporting infrastructure in place. When the athletes are invested in properly, when they are trained and fed in a better way, then and only then do they get the desired results.

So that is exactly what we need to do. We, as a nation, need to invest in better infrastructure for our sportsmen and sportswomen. Because let’s be honest, there are few moments which bring about pride as an athlete doing well in an international event. When he or she steps onto the podium, the whole country is with them at that moment.

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For the country, it is a moment of immense satisfaction but for an athlete, it is a dream come true.

I have already lived through that dream once. In front of the nation, being on the podium. I have witnessed that first hand and I can tell you, that was one of the best experiences of my life.

I am in the latter stages of my career now and still recovering from injury. An injury which was kept me out of competitions for a long, long time. However, I am not yet ready to let go of my sports dream. Hopefully, I will be fit soon enough and at a level where I can get another chance of reliving the feeling of national pride.

One thing is for sure. I will keep contributing to sports, in one way or another. Because at the end of the day, you can take a sportsperson out of sports but you can’t take sports out of a sportsperson.