Much like the sport she pursues, Sapna Kumari has overcome obstacles all through her athletic journey. Be it injuries, reservations from her family, brickbats or the heartbreak of seeing her sister give up a career in sport so Sapna wouldn’t have to. The longer she has run the better she has gotten at it. The 23-year-old is now one of the fastest 100m hurdlers in the country and she started her 2023 season by winning a silver at the Indian Grand Prix in Bengaluru on 10 April.
“Sport ke liye bohot maar khaya hai maine! (I have taken a lot of beating for sport),” said Sapna, during an interaction with Mint, looking back at her journey with quiet grit and a twinkle in the eye.
A native of Ramgarh, Jharkhand, she was introduced to sports by her sister Sneha, who is two years older. When the two were still in school, Sapna would be fascinated as her sister, a discus thrower, would go out of town for athletics meets and return with shiny medals.
Sneha was the one who first took her younger sister to the training ground, against the wishes of their mother. Though she started as a long jumper, Sapna switched to sprinting and hurdles since her first coach Rajib Ranjan Singh thought she was better suited to it. The family, however, struggled to make ends meet when the sisters began their formal training.
“My sister was selected for SAI (Sports Authority of India) in Kolkata in 2013, and in 2014 I got a spot in SAI, Ranchi,” Sapna recalled. “At that time my father was working at Tata Steel and didn’t earn a lot. He was also taking care of his sisters and brother. My mom said it was too much of a financial strain, sending money to both of us. She wanted at least one of us to study and get a steady job. So, my sister relented and came back. But she fought for me, told my mother, ‘I have left sport but I won’t let Sapna quit’.”
The sole keeper of their athletic dreams, Sapna started working harder than ever. Hurdles, though, wasn’t an easy event to master. The 2’9-high obstacles are known for tripping even the best athletes at the biggest games, and the youngster had her share of run-ins. “I have spilled a lot of blood on hurdles,” she says, before narrating an incident when she was dragged on the track for 8.5 metres after falling, scraping the left side of her body. “My mom was worried for my health after that, but I told her only if I fall can I learn.”
Only a month after starting competing in the event, Sapna won a gold at the inter-district nationals in 2013 and broke the meet record. She made winning medals, at national and international competitions, a habit after that.
However, an injury in 2018 sent her spiralling. Sapna first felt a niggle in her ankle while training for the All-India University Games. “But ankle pain is not unusual for hurdlers so I ignored it,” she said. What started as a stress fracture turned into a splintered shin bone. “Only when the leg turned black did I realise that how serious it was.”
Despite taking a prescribed amount of rest and putting the leg in a cast, the bone didn’t quite heal. “Those three years, from 2018 to 2021 were really difficult,” Sapna adds. “I thought my sports career was over, and by that time I didn’t even have a job. People around started saying I had wasted my life.”
There was some respite when she was recruited by the Central Industrial Security Force under the sports quota. She underwent a four-month training programme, but gave up the job after being picked up for the elite Reliance Foundation athletics programme in November 2022.
“She was very raw, clearly a very talented girl,” said coach James Hillier, a former British Athletics high performance coach, who is currently the Athletics Director at Reliance Foundation.
“She was carrying some extra weight so we had to get her a bit leaner, a bit better conditioned. Her natural posture was bad. We had to improve that and then just get her strong. The muscles were quite strong but the connective tissues like tendons weren’t quite as strong. Probably the biggest thing for her is that she is quite flat footed, which wastes a lot of energy when you land,” said Hillier.
“So, we tried to get her to land on the forefoot and use her reactive strength a little more. She might do well this year, but I am very much looking at her as a two-year project. I think she’s going to do well in 2024,” he said.
At the programme, Sapna is the training partner of currently the best hurdler in India, Jyothi Yarraji. The two took gold and silver at the Indian Grand Prix in Bangalore earlier this month, with timings of 13.44s and 13.85s respectively.
“We are competitors, but we are more like sisters,” Sapna said of Yarraji, who holds the national record for 100m hurdles (12.82s, set in October 2022). “We support each other a lot in training. If there is something I think I can’t do, or give up, at that time she’s the one who pushes me to work harder.”
Though the learning curve is only getting steeper for Sapna, her eyes are set on qualifying for the 2023 Asian Games. The Athletics Federation of India has set a qualifying mark of 13.63s for women’s 100m hurdles, while Sapna’s personal best is 13.23s.
Now, with all the peripheral problems behind her, she’s ready to make a run for it.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter