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Braving accidents and catcalls, Pragnya Mohan is on track to make triathlon big in India

Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022: Conquering several hurdles, triathlete Pragnya Mohan is keen on creating history.

Pragnya Mohan South Asian Championships Nepal gold triathlon cwg asiad

Gujarat's triathlete Pragnya Mohan aspires to become the first person from India to qualify for the Commonwealth Games (Source: Instagram/Pragnya Mohan)


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 29 July 2022 5:07 AM GMT

Raised eyebrows, sneers, catcalls, near-death experiences, gender taboos and absurd questions may routinely abound in the life of triathlon athlete Pragnya Mohan but that hasn't deterred the 27-year-old from defending her title at the 2022 Asia Cup & South Asian Championships in Pokhara, Nepal.

Staying on course to qualify for the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games and fiddling with the Parisian dream in mind, Pragnya Mohan was a bundle of happy energy as she settled in for a chat with The Bridge, while jostling down the roads of Nepal in a bus, the gold medal neatly tucked in her bag.

A water baby at heart who took to the splish-splashing ways of the baby pool as a 2-year-old, egged on by an equally sporty and fitness-conscious family, Pragnya has come a long way and is well en route to becoming the first Indian triathlete to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. "It feels great, this is a good stepping stone for me," Mohan says on the South Asian Championships win, a title she had also won in 2019.

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"Moreover, it's just the start of the season and this was one of the qualifiers for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games and getting gold in it is only acting as a confidence-booster for me," Pragnya happily mentioned.

The triathlon dilemmas

Pragnya Mohan after her gold medal win at the South Asian Championships (Source: Express)

Even though the smiles tumble from her face now, it has hardly been easy getting here with the majority of the Indian mass still in the dark about the Olympic triathlon, often replacing it synonymously with the more popular, Ironman races instead.

"Half the time when I go asking for sponsorships and funding, I have to explain what my sport is because people are very unaware still," Pragnya, a little amused, mentioned.

"Lot of people know and associate this with Ironman because that has become a very big brand now. People look down on me when I say I do Olympic distance triathlon like: Okay, maybe she can't do the Ironman distances," she pointed out.

In a country too invested with cricket, selling the idea of triathlon - a combination sport that demands an athlete to excel in a triad of things - swimming, cycling and running, is a whole different ballgame and naturally, draws the oddest of questions.

"Many a time I am asked how we manage to change clothes in between our events," she mentions with a chuckle. "Most people are not aware that triathletes wear the same aerodynamic suit for all three events, there is no question of changing involved," Mohan explained.

A chartered accountant as well who switched to triathlon in 2013 just after finishing high school and became the National Champion on her first try, Pragnya has been making waves on the triathlon circuit, inspiring at every step of the way, bouncing back from injuries and taking the societal stereotypes head-on.

"I didn't start with the aim of being competitive but I just wanted to stay fit," Pragnya recalled, giving the credit to her extremely supportive parents and brother who all share an equal obsession for both sports and academics.

"My father, Pratap Mohan, is my coach whenever I am training in India and he is extremely involved…he has been the one pushing me since the beginning," she revealed, hinting that is where her fitness-loving genes hail from, having been a lover of marathons and swimming since her school days itself.

Training abroad extensively in Spain and Australia, Pragnya leaves no stone unturned to keep her body fit and puts in 25 hours of weekly training usually with the major focus going on cycling and the rest divided between running and swimming.

Run, swim, cycle - like a girl

Pragnya Mohan has had to overcome a lot of gender taboos as well (Source: Instagram/Pragnya Mohan)

Being a female athlete in India in itself is something that invites the ire and opinion of a multitude of people who often question the choices and for Pragnya, being a triathlete, the challenges have been far too many.

"Triathlon in itself is a very challenging sport - you have to be good in all three things to be at the elite level and sustain yourself through sports only," she explained.

Moreover, the suspicion as to why a qualified Chartered Accountant would want to run, swim and cycle around provokes more questions in people.

"Lot of people think I'm doing sports because maybe, in reality, I am not a CA," Pragnya, mentioned, with a light laugh, as the bus wound its way down the roads of Pokhara to Kathmandu.

Moreover, the occupational hazards for a triathlete in India are even more grave - from unfriendly roads to eve-teasers and jeers from onlookers and judgemental opinions from the society, far too many things make the sport so difficult to prosper.

"Indian roads are not friendly for cyclists - because of the traffic here and people don't really care about cyclists in our country," she says.

"I have had a lot of accidents - once I crashed with an SUV in 2015 in Ahmedabad while cycling and even suffered from amnesia…this is the general triathlon hazard part," she recalled.

But that isn't where all the trouble ends because injuries and accidents may be one thing but getting society to come to terms with such choices is a far more challenging game and Pragnya has had to endure a lot simply because of her gender.

"Moreover, there are people who stalk us, follow us on bikes, there are catcalls too - that is a normal thing right now," Pragnya mentioned matter-of-factly.

"The female-specific part comes in, especially for the clothes we have to wear which many people find objectionable," she says. "Since we have cycling, we wear aerodynamic clothing that is body-hugging."

"When I had the accident, I was the one bleeding but people gathered around me started commenting on my clothes and then they started saying things like: "If she wants to cycle, she should cycle around her house", "A girl should be home, why is she cycling?", "Why is she wearing clothes like this"," Pragnya remembered, indicating the number of obstacles - both physical and mental that need to be conquered on a daily basis.

In 2019 as well, Pragnya had another scare in Spain where she needed steel clamps to be inserted in her wrist which left her really shaken. However, with her family acting as her support system, all the demotivating thoughts soon went away too.

"None of the accidents have demotivated me enough to leave the sport yet. You have to develop a sort of resilience to bounce back from such adversities and being a female athlete especially, you need to have thick skin to even continue," she relayed, her voice mellowing a little then.

A medal can spark a change

Even if Karan Johar's 2012 film outing, Student of the Year, featured a climactic triathlon race that was shot in as Bollywood-y a style as imaginable, its inclusion in the film didn't really cause a Chak-De!-India-like revolution, so to say.

However, it did manage to bring triathlon on the map but its relevance in an Indian context was missing with a dearth of athletes to associate the success of the sport with, back then.

Flash forward the years, the scene has considerably changed and with the likes of Pragnya, Maharashtra's Sanjana Joshi triathlon's future in the country is scripting a journey towards making history but it's not going to be an overnight triumph.

"It is only if we get international medals - say, from the Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games and recognition, only then can this sport really grow," Pragnya optimistically analysed.

"Just like we needed a Saina Nehwal to win a bronze at the Beijing Olympics to make badminton a mainstream sport in India, a similar revolution is needed in triathlon as well," Pragnya hoped, with a smile.

With history waiting to be made at the upcoming Games' in 2022, Pragnya Mohan, remains the trailblazer in her sport, awaiting to make triathlon truly popular in India and do just enough to ensure that nobody asks - "Why is a girl running, swimming and cycling like this?" again.

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