Conquering hurdles and reaching for the stars

    A little over a year ago, the standard 33-inch hurdle which Jyothi Yarraji had cleared innumerable times suddenly seemed like an impassable barrier. Just after New Year’s day in 2020, Jyothi had sailed over 10 of them at the All India Inter-University Athletics Championships in Moodbidri, Karnataka, to clock 13.03s, 0.35s better than Anuradha Biswal’s national record from 2002.

    Though it was not ratified as the nation’s best because there was no one to dope-test competitors, the performance had thrust Jyothi into the limelight as one of the brightest athletics prospects. But eighteen months later, the sparkling promise had seemingly faded out. The pandemic and a combination of injuries — hamstring, groin and left knee (meniscus tear) — meant that a single hurdle started resembling an unscalable mountain.

    “I couldn’t hurdle at all,” Jyothi recollects. “I was too scared. [Prior to that] I couldn’t even walk properly for six months. Then I started my comeback. The first two months were just horrible. Flat runs are easier, but hurdling is tough. I was scared every step.”

    Staggering transformation

    The 23-year-old’s transformation from such a state to the athlete she is now — national record holder in 100m hurdles, owner of the four best Indian times in the discipline and the only one from the country to run an official sub-13-second race — has been staggering. This season, she has rewritten the national record four times, including thrice during an astonishing fortnight in May in Europe where she first lowered it to 13.23s (Cyprus), then to 13.11s (Loughborough, England) and then to 13.04s (The Netherlands).

    Physical gifts: Jyothi’s coaches feel that her height, long legs and strong tendons contribute to making her a natural hurdler.

    On either side of this stretch of results, she had two performances which were better than the then national best, but were deemed wind-assisted (more than the permissible 2 m/s) and hence not considered. This included her stunning 12.79s at the National Games in Gujarat in early October. There was also the Inter-State Championship in Chennai in June where she tripped on a hurdle and finished last.

    But it wasn’t long before she proved her mettle again, this time in Bengaluru on a cold and rainy evening at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, by going under 13s to clock 12.82s. After having settled for the realities of competitive sport earlier and submitted to its many idiosyncrasies, that victory in the last race of the year was a taste of salvation.

    “I did three races back to back, at 7.30 p.m., 8.20 p.m. and 9.20 p.m., and that’s difficult,” Jyothi says. “But my good endurance workouts helped me be consistent across the heats and the final. The conditions were difficult too — windy, rainy and slippery. So there were some questions in my mind. But I just wanted to finish my season faster and on a high, and everything ended well.”

    Shaped by hardship

    It is safe to say that growing up in Visakhapatnam, this wouldn’t have been the future she envisaged for herself. Her father was a security guard and mother a hospital worker; making ends meet was a challenge. School didn’t hold much appeal. Running was her way out.

    Improved technique: Jyothi has worked on her posture to enhance her natural speed.

    Improved technique: Jyothi has worked on her posture to enhance her natural speed.

    Dronacharya awardee N. Ramesh, who first spotted Jyothi aged 16 during the selections for the Sports Authority of India’s Hyderabad centre and subsequently trained her for three years, says childhood hardship was instrumental in shaping her.

    “She comes from a very poor family in Vizag,” says Ramesh. “A girl or a boy from such a background knows what struggle is. That’s the main reason. She has very good general intelligence and is a very quick learner. But her fighting spirit is something [else].

    “When she came to my centre, she was raw and she didn’t know much about hurdling. Seeing her physical attributes — good height (5’9”) and long legs — I thought she could do it. As an athlete, when you know of no options, you will do anything. When you are hungry, you will eat anything, you don’t have a choice,” Ramesh adds.

    According to Welshman James Hillier, under whom Jyothi now trains at the Odisha Reliance Foundation High Performance Centre, she is a naturally gifted athlete but also someone who is willing to embrace rigorous training techniques and develop the right attitude.

    “She has got really good natural speed, something you need in abundance in women’s 100m hurdles,” Hillier says. “She has got really good quality tendons, which allows her to use force very efficiently. And the attitude is very good. Even after breaking the national record multiple times, after each race she said she should have done better.”

    Demanding event

    The 100m hurdles is a highly technical discipline and among the most demanding of track and field events. An athlete needs to be free-spirited like a sprinter but temper it during hurdle clearance without losing too much horizontal velocity. Jyothi seems to have married these two aspects pretty well, for at the National Games, she won the 100m dash, beating Dutee Chand and Hima Das, before going on to clinch the hurdles.

    Much depends also on how one deals with — and manipulates — the three constants: distance to the first hurdle (13m), height of the hurdle (33 inches) and the distance between each hurdle (8.5m). For any athlete, regardless of how long or short the natural stride, the standard is to have three strides between two hurdles, each measuring about 1.8m. So where is a race won or lost?

    “You have to create that environment [for minute improvements] in training,” explains Hillier. You can reduce the distance between hurdles to, say, 8m from 8.5m. Jyothi will then have to be quicker and shorter with her strides. That will help her get a greater velocity and she will get used to clearing the hurdle faster because she is running into them faster.

    “There are loads of things you can do and the thing is, she is quite brave and excited when I give something new to do. And she doesn’t get upset when she gets something wrong.

    “There is also the posture. When Jyothi was first with me, the head was going up and down. It’s wasted energy and will slow you down. But in the 12.82s race in Bangalore, the head was almost a straight line. That takes a lot of work in the gym and we work on it every day.”

    By all counts, 2022 has been a coming-of-age season for Jyothi. Her timing in Bengaluru (12.82s), in fact, places her 43rd in the world and second in Asia for this year. It was also just 0.04s off the 2023 World Athletics Championships cutoff. With the Asian Games set to be held next year, she is a sure-shot medal prospect.

    “I want her to be thinking bigger than Asian level,” says Hillier. “You target the Worlds, and by default you can be at the highest level in Asia. It’s like this — you reach for the stars and get to the moon, you will be really, really happy. That’s the mentality I would want her to have and I think she is open to that.”

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