From Satara to Washington: these girls have defied odds to win medals

Vaishnavi Sawant, Reshma Kewate and Poonam Kalel from Mann taluka in Satara district at a felicitation ceremony in Wankhede stadium on Friday evening.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

As a child, Reshma Kewate would take the family’s buffaloes out to graze several kilometres from home; days spent chasing them around, preventing them from straying, gave her all the training a city youngster aspiring to be an endurance athlete would get. And sure enough, when she began formal training at the Mann Deshi Champions grounds near her village — Mhaswad, in Mann taluka, Satara — she began winning, 5-km, 10-km and half-marathon races. Now 18 and in Class XII, they know her in the village school as “the animal chaser who became the marathon winner.”

Poonam Kalel, from Jambulni village in the same taluka, too worked with animals, helping her grandmother and aunt with herd their sheep and goats and, besides, walked long distances to school. She’s 16 now, and won first prize in the long jump at the National Athletics Federation Championship in Chhattisgarh and the first prize in the triple jump at the Maharashtra Junior Athletics Meet.

Vaishnavi Sawant, 15, has equally good achievements to her credit: the daughter of a farmer from Pulkoti village recently stood second in the Satara Hill 5-km race and fifth in the Pune 5-km; she also competes in the long jump category at state-level events.

The three young champions have just returned from a two-week immersion training programme in Washington, and — jet-lagged though they were — they and their parents smiled through a felicitation programme by the Mann Deshi Foundation in Mumbai on Friday.

Just getting to the US had its own set of challenges. Prabhat Sinha, founder of the Champions programme, furiously tapped his American network and finally found one high school to host the children. Finding sponsors too took a while. Then, the girls’ names were different across documents, and they had no passports or Aadhaar cards. At the visa interviews, where most spend 10 minutes at the visa counter, he and the girls went through almost an hour of grilling. “We almost didn’t go,” he says. “The visa interview came through at the last minute. My Plan B was that we’d watch a movie, buy good shoes and clothes for the kids and return.”

While they were in the US, they added a few more laurels to their collection: Vaishnavi won gold in the 2,500m all-Virginia State Championship, while Reshma won silver.

The US experience was rich in other ways too. For the girls, it began with “how can one airplane accommodate so many people and luggage?” and then being blown away by the height of the skyscrapers in Washington and New York and getting to see a game of American football. They found the food bland, and took time to get used to it, and they taught their host family how to make bhakris. They remain in awe of the culture of discipline and respect in the US.

As to training, their days began at 3.30 a.m., covered different terrains, and carried on into the blazing afternoon sun. For the first time, they had a structural weightlifting session. “Unlike in India,” Vaishnavi says, “the coach would just tell us once what we had to do, and leave. The girls would be motivated enough to follow it.” The girls remember constantly converting miles into kilometres and once losing their way during a forest run.

“Competition there is way ahead,” Mr. Sinha says. “Our national-level competence is what you see there at the school level, and I wanted them to experience that.” He got the girls to work with Essa Ward, the University of Oregon long-jump and triple-jump coach, a four-time Olympics gold medallist at the age of 18. Mr. Ward’s inputs were invaluable. “He said Vaishnavi had a lot of energy, but caved in during stress. He would always ask them to glide like a butterfly into a pit. Coaches in India don’t typically give such personalised inputs.”

The girls’ coach back home, Maruti Lokhande, says, “When they come to us, these kids are chikhalcha gol (mouldable balls of clay). They have neither shoes, slippers, nor equipment, but have already run a lot. They have just raw talent.” When Reshma came to him, he set her free for six months, giving her ropes, balls, whatever she wanted, focusing only on her fitness.

The children’s parents have been huge sources of support. Reshma’s family, for instance, got flak from the community for sending a girl into sports. She is her parents’ fourth daughter, and they had already weathered pressure to go in for artificial insemination and get a son. “But we let her chase her dream,” her mother says. “The same people who criticised us now say she has brought fame to the village.” Vaishnavi says that her family never forced her to do household chores, though her grandmother had said, in a worried tone, “You must now learn to wash clothes.” By then, Vaishnavi had seen how people lived abroad. “There are washing machines for that,” she shot back; her grandmother, equally feisty, bought her one, and a microwave oven as well.

The girls wish to become professional sportspersons and win at the Olympics, they say, with a quiet determination. Vaishnavi takes a brief respite from ribbing her friends to say, “My dream comes before anything else.”

They would like many more to follow the path they took. “When we were training, a lot of students dropped out,” Vaishnavi says. “Parents should let their kids continue, even if they don’t win. The idea is to enjoy themselves.”

The enabler

It took a large team to put these village girls onto podiums.

In December 2010, the Mann Deshi Foundation launched Mann Deshi Champions, to identify future athletes in rural areas, and give them facilities and training to excel. Since 2011, the programme has trained over 4,000 athletes, of whom 150 have excelled at state and national level. Currently, 150 children train under three coaches.

“Rural India has a lot of talent which needs to be observed, tapped and supported,” says Chetna Gala Sinha, founder, Mann Deshi Foundation. “In turn, we learn a lot from these communities.”

Prabhat Sinha, founder of the Champions programme, says, “Just like in Kenya where you have long-distance runners, boys and girls in our rural areas come from shepherd, cane-cutter and farming communities in dry regions. They do a lot of running and have a lot of strength.” Mr. Sinha spent his childhood in Mhaswad village, and knows the challenges of rural life intimately. “We did farming, but had no experience of organised sport. I had never played anything bit kabaddi.” It was only in the US, where he went in his 8th grade, that Mr. Sinha got to play a variety of sports, including basketball. Years later, he decided he would come back to cultivate talent in his home country.

The programme identifies talent as young as six or seven, gives them rigorous, gender-neutral coaching and a nutrition-rich diet, and once a year, sends them to Mumbai to learn from national-level coaches.

“The three pillars to empower our athletes to go to the Olympics level are the right nutrition, coaches and facilities,” Mr. Sinha says. It’s tough to find coaches — “no one wants to stay in a village” — and raise the funds for facilities and proper nutrition in rural areas. But planned now are a cross-fit swimming pool, a climbing wall, a synthetic track and an indoor stadium. The big goal is to have at least one athlete qualify for the Olympics at Japan in 2020.

The programme has partnerships with K-11 Academy for gymnasium training, and with the State police, to prepare the children for law enforcement (many of them nurture ambitions to join the police). “This is not just a programme that gives them social and motor skills. We want them to find employment, so that when they finish training at 17 or 18, they can support their families.” Social transformation is the unstated goal. For instance, he would like to see a drop in the 48% child marriage rate in the district. “We still have a lot to do.”

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 10:25:43 AM |

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