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How Udupi's golden girl hurdled her way to stardom

Last updated on: January 13, 2011 10:20 IST

'Ashwini was placed first at the district level sports meet'

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Ashwini Chidananda Akkunji won gold medals in the women's 4x400m relay and 400m hurdles at the Commonwealth and Asian Games respectively against all odds. Rajul Hegde traces the meteoric rise of India's latest track sensation.

From a young age, Ashwini Chidananda Akkunji was destined for a great career in athletics. Despite hailing from the tiny hamlet of Jansale, in the interiors of Karnataka's Udupi district, the 23-year-old lass became the toast of the nation when she won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games and a double gold at the Asian Games last year.

Ashwini, who won a gold medal in the 4x400m relay at the Commonwealth Games and two gold from the 4x400m relay and 400m hurdles at the Asian Games, was easily the fastest kid in her primary class at the Hosiangadi school, where she studied. Soon the teachers began pairing her with older girls, but she was even too fast for them. She was finally asked to run with the boys and would even beat them.

"The boys were really embarrassed and requested their sports teacher not to send Ashwini to run against them," informs her sister, Deepti Shetty, an English lecturer in a local college.

"She would enjoy herding the family's cows by scrambling through the paddy fields. That is where she discovered her love for running," she adds.

Jansale is a small village near Siddhapura in Udupi District. It wasn't easy for Ashwini and her siblings to travel to school.

"All my three children would walk two kilometers to catch a bus to go to KPC English School in Hosiangadi," says Chidananda Shetty, Ashwini's father.

He also noticed her physical strength, as she would run faster than boys her age.

"But her actual talent came to the fore when she was in fifth standard; she placed first at the district level sports meet without any training," he informs.

Ashwini's mother, Yashoda, was also very good in sports in her school days. "I guess it's in our genes," says her mother, proudly.


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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'I knew she had talent and I didn't want to waste it'

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Ashwini took running seriously after she was admitted to a sports school at Vidyanagar in Bangaluru as a 13-year-old, in 2000.

"I knew she had talent and I didn't want to waste it; so I got her admitted to a sports school at Bangalore," Shetty says.

"She was always disciplined from her childhood. She would come from school, change her uniform and do her homework before going to play. She would wash her own clothes on Saturday and Sunday and continues to do so," he adds.

Her first coach, Manjunath, was confident that she would make it big in sports one day. He trained her for three years at the sports school in Bengaluru, and, as a result of the coaching, she placed first in an inter-state competition in Kolkata.

After her 10th standard, a college in Moodbidri, about 50 kilometres from her home, invited her to join and train there under the coach Prem Kumar.

She became junior national champion in the 400 metres and won various athletics events. Her potential was noticed by scouts of the Tata Athletics Academy in Jamshedpur, who offered her a scholarship-based training programme. She underwent training for 3-4 years under renowned coach Sathnam Singh. Since the last two years she's training at the Sports Authority of India.

Ashwini continued winning events around the country and was short-listed among the athletes to train for the Commonwealth Games in Ukraine under Coach Yuri Ogorodnik for two months.

Shetty says there was neither any encouragement nor discouragement from anyone.

"Before the Commonwealth Games nobody knew her or was there any kind of support from the government. Only a few close family members were aware that she had gone to Ukraine for training. People got to know about her only after she won the gold medal in 400 meters relay."


Image: Ashwini Chidananda (right) smiles after winning the CWG relay

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'After the Commonwealth Games gold her confidence got a boost'

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Her sister says Ashwini is always relaxed and confident before her event. "We get tense sitting in front of the TV. She believes in herself and God. Before the Commonwealth Games she called us to say not to worry. 'We will get the gold medal,' she told the family.

 "Till the Commonwealth Games, her record in the hurdles was not that good though she won a championship in Thiruvanathpuram a few months before. She actually got proper training and learnt the techniques only after the Games," informed her sister.

"After the Commonwealth Games gold her confidence got a boost with encouragement from her coaches. During the Asiad she called again and said, 'Akka (sister), we will definitely get a medal but don't know which'."

And, indeed, she clocked her personal best in hurdles and her dream of winning an individual gold in the event was fulfilled.


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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'Now I am known as Ashwini's father'

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Ashwini's father Shetty says after the Asian Games it was like a Diwali celebration in the village.

"I don't think there were any crackers left in the shops. People were planning a huge welcome for her. They distributed pamphlets, banners, flowers crackers, posters everywhere. They showered her with lots of love and affection. Even the local MLA, Laxminarayan, visited our home and has promised to make a proper road to our house."

With pride, Shetty adds: "Now I am known as Ashwini's father. I am really proud of my daughter."

Shetty is excited that his daughter is planning to gift him a car.

"Now I have a bike but my daughter wants to buy a car for me. I will buy a small car after discussing with my children."


Image: Ashwini Chidananda greeted at her home village after winning the Asian Games

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'My parents loved it when I said I wanted to be an athlete'

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There were times when things did not go as planned. Ashwini went through a lean patch a few years ago.

"I was depressed because nothing was falling in place," he says. "Her performance was not up to the mark due to health reasons and she couldn't give her BA exams due to practice sessions. She didn't have a job also, so I was asking myself whether I made a mistake by not giving her good education."

But things changed quite quickly. Suddenly she got a job in the railways, as a ticket collector, because of her sporting abilities.

"She went to work for a couple of days but still continues to get her pay. Now I think she will get promoted after her Asiad success (smiles)."

Ashwini credits her parents for her success.

"My parents loved it when I said I wanted to be an athlete and they did not think twice about sending me to the sports school in Bangalore where I learnt a lot," she says.


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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'After Asiad everyone has started calling her Jansale Express'

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And how did she handle the adulation after her Asiad success?

"People were more excited than I was after I won the gold medal. After I landed in Mangalore airport I could see more of media persons than relatives. I was cool about it but my father was too stressed and didn't know how to handle them. We had to stop at every place before we reached my village. Next day there was a procession in a jeep in Siddhapur.

 "I have come up the hard way in life and I belong to a rural family. It makes me feel proud to get such recognition, encouragement and love from the people. The response that I have got from people has far exceeded my expectations."

Ashwini's mother Yashoda says, "People used to call her rocket and jinkee mari (deer fawn), but now after the Commonwealth Games and Asiad everyone has started calling her Jansale Express."


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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'I took to the 400m hurdles only on the advice of my coaches'

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Ashwini is happy that she could win a gold medal. "I knew I was good enough to get a medal in the 400m hurdles, but, honestly, I never thought I would get gold. I made sure that I didn't look around at my opponents during the race, because if someone hits a hurdle it can affect your concentration."

She continues: "After the Commonwealth Games I got the confidence; all my coaches encouraged me and told to concentrate more on hurdles. I religiously practiced hurdles for a month. I would jump very high and was wasting time in the air. Because I am tall, I need to fine-tune my technique to cross the hurdles. I worked on all the technicalities and corrected the flaws.

"I took to the 400m hurdles only on the advice of my coaches, Yuri Ogorodnik and R S Siddhu. They have been great motivators and I have been able to solve a lot of technical flaws to bring down my timing drastically which helped me to win the gold."


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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'My aim is to improve to 53 seconds'

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Indian racing legends Ashwini Nachappa, P T Usha and Rosa Kutty are her idols.

"I spoke to all of them after the Asiad. PT asked me how I will manage to cut down another three seconds (which will bring her into reckoning for a medal in the London Olympics).

 "I can cut down a few seconds from my 56.15s effort in Guangzhou by reducing the number of strides between the hurdles and using both legs to clear them. If I can bring down my timing by at least two seconds then Usha's record (55.42) will be bettered." 

Ashwini's leading leg to clear the hurdles is the left since she first ran in a 400m hurdles in Kochi in May. She will work out along with her coaches to alternately use her right leg to cut down her timing

Her coach R.S Siddhu said, "If you are using only one leg you become tired towards the end and so you need to change your leading leg to give you strength in the latter half of the race. We are thinking she can cut down three seconds with this technique."

Ashwini says, "My aim is to improve to 53 seconds. If I work on both the legs to clear, it will be much quicker. My next goal is to win an Olympics medal, gold if possible. I am confident of my speed, but I will have to improve my competence in clearing the hurdles. I need to do more practice and exercise."


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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'I love dancing and I don't miss an opportunity to dance'

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Since last month, Ashwini is busy attending functions and giving interviews. "I know what I have achieved, but I have to work more on improving my speed. I am just doing my warm-ups but not been able to really train. Next month I am going back to Patiala to start my practice," she said.

Ashwini likes homemade food, especially the fish curry prepared by her mother.  She likes to dance to all the Bollywood numbers and her favourite singer is Sunidhi Chauhan.

"I love dancing and I don't miss an opportunity to dance," she informs.

Ashwini has now become an inspiration for rural children interested in sports. Her sister Deepti says, "Some parents and my students tell me that they never knew that they could achieve so much in sports. People who were interested in sports but did not take it up seriously now want to concentrate and revive it. Now they say they just want to run, run and run."

She recalls an incident after Ashwini's homecoming from the Asian Games.

"A schoolboy came all the way from Udupi (about 70 kms away) to our village in his uniform to meet Ashwini, but she wasn't at home. He had come with an autograph book and he walked two kms from Jhansale. He was so disappointed, but we promised him that he will get to meet after she comes back. This is new inspiration and the beginning for many kids."


Image: Ashwini Chidananda

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