July 3, 2022

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Sports Really Satisfies

How hurdler Jyothi Yarraji rewrote NR thrice in 16 days

The first time Jyothi Yarraji was exposed to an electronic starter – commonplace at all top track events, as opposed to the manual guns used in India – was at a race in Cyprus just two weeks ago. She was the slowest off the blocks but powered through to win the race in a then NR of 13.23s. That was the third time she’d run below the national record (the first two times were not counted on technical grounds) and she’d break the NR again within weeks.

The takeaway from that episode was that “she’s now aware,” according to Jyothi’s coach James Hillier. “If there is one [an electric gun] next time then she will be ready for it. She will now pay attention to the sound of the gun in the races before hers and understand what type of gun it is. She has that awareness now, which is a good thing.”

If running a 100m dash wasn’t challenging by itself, Jyothi does it whilst leaping over ten 33-inch hurdles.

Jyothi, 22, trained at the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh’s centre of excellence since 2015 and moved to Bhubaneswar late last year to work with Hillier at the Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High-Performance Centre. For James, the focus over the last eight months has been on making her hurdle clearances sharper.

“We are specifically trying to improve her hurdle clearance and the snappiness of it, but that’s a product of better reaction times, strength, better speed, technique and hip mobility. She’s getting better in it with every race. She has shown improvement across all the parameters – her speed has improved by 10-12% since she joined us, and some of her lifts [weight training] have increased by over 150%. The performance is a result of a lot of things we work on – it’s part of the holistic development of the athlete,” says Hillier.

A world away from home

Jyothi hails from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, where her father works as a security guard and mother is employed as a part-time cleaner in a hospital.

She first made waves when she won the Inter-state Athletics Championships in 2019. It was her very first senior national competition and she won gold. It was the beginning of her unbeaten streak as she’s gone on to win each of the ten 100m hurdles races she has run since in the domestic circuit.

That points to why the European sojourn was so important for her – it was Jyothi’s first trip abroad and also the first time she would run against foreign competitors. It exposed her to a world far away from hers and it would have been natural for her to feel a little overwhelmed by it all, but Hillier feels it’s helped her mature as a person. “She gained a lot of confidence. More than confidence, she has gained real self-belief. She believes she’s as good, if not better than girls here.

“This was her first time outside India and maybe when she got here she thought maybe everyone is so good, strong and fast. But now she believes she is as good as anyone. She has that belief on the start line and wants to win every race. She doesn’t care about the timings – it’s simply a bonus if it’s a record. We’re focussing on running hard and the process,” he says.

A very crucial part of that process is Hillier’s all-encompassing mantra – race, review and improve. “It’s a constant process of those three things. Whatever the timing is, whether it’s a good run or a bad one, the review process remains the same,” he says. He deliberately reviews the footage the day after the race to let the athlete process the race result, whether favourable or not.

While the review happens the next day, Jyothi has a new routine after each race – to whip up a new dish in the kitchen. She had never cooked before, but this trip motivated her to try and don the chef’s hat and she’s now known to make some mean pasta and fried rice. “She cooked me very good fried rice after the race yesterday. She chopped up some garlic, added some rice and cooked it all up. It was very tasty – she’s turning out to be quite a good cook. It could be a future career for her one day!” he says, adding “we’re all learning new skills.” Speaking of new skills, Hillier has become Jyothi’s photographer on this trip and has done a mighty good job at it:

The race after the race in The Netherlands

On May 22, Jyothi ran at the Loughborough International Athletics Meet in the UK, set a then NR of 13.11s, and travelled to the Netherlands for the Harry Schulting Games. She had a blip before the race but Hillier helped her turn a negative aspect into a positive one. “Jyothi came up to me right before the race and said her warm-up did not go very well. I told her it wasn’t about the warmup and it was about the race. So then I flipped around the situation to make it an opportunity and told her she had basically saved energy for the race. She was quite surprised that she ran so fast [13.04s],” he says.

Jyothi’s 13.04s run meant she had broken the women’s 100m hurdles national record for the third time in 16 days. The duo were thrilled with the result but also realised they had another hurdle to cross: Jyothi needed to take a dope test ASAP to ratify the record.

A bit of a backstory to why this step was so important: back in 2020, Jyothi had set a national record of 13.03s, her best timing to date, but it was not ratified because there were no representatives from the National Anti-Doping Agency at the 2020 All India Inter-University Athletics meet.

Jyothi was once again denied a national record in April this year as she ran 13.09s at the Federation Cup but it did not stand because it was a wind-assisted run. Jyothi was distraught and broke down after the race.

Hillier did not want Jyothi to go through that ordeal again. He ran around the arena and the car park but could not find anyone from the Dutch anti-doping agency [Doping Authority Netherlands]. Jyothi had 24 hours from the time of her race to be tested to ratify the record.

“It was a national holiday [Hemelvaartsdag (Ascension Day)]. I was ringing up the Dutch anti-doping agency but no one would come because it was a holiday!” recalls Hillier. “The next morning [Friday] I was frantically ringing around and finally got the number of the head of the Dutch anti-doping agency. I called him to find out that he was on a run in the middle of the forest! We couldn’t get any [cell phone] reception and we could not hear each other.

“Eventually we managed to find a male doping control office,” he says – but there was yet another hurdle – “we needed a drive to his house and needed a female chaperone to take Jyothi to the washroom.”

The two of them then drove three hours to reach the official’s house and they were greeted with some good news: the official had managed to find a female chaperone. “This official basically got his neighbour, who happened to be a nurse, to chaperone Jyothi. We got the test done just within 24 hours of her race – in 22 hours. I was a little stressed because I know how much it meant to Jyothi. I’m glad we got the test done,” he says.

“Probably, every time she runs she has to go through this process to ratify it. It’s a nice problem to have,” he adds with a wry laugh.

The delay in getting the dope test meant Jyothi and Hillier would reach Belgium, where she was to run in the IFAM Oordegem athletics meet on Saturday, four hours later than their scheduled time.

“We took a ferry from the UK to The Netherlands and then we had another drive from the ferry port to our stay here. There’s been a lot of uncertainty when it comes to travelling but Jyothi has welcomed it and has dealt with it. She never says she’s tired. And that’s great because that’s what you need to do to be successful. It’s a part of being a professional athlete,” the coach says from the lobby of their hotel in Belgium. They’ve just completed the check-in formalities. Jyothi ran 13.19s at the World Continental Tour (Challenger) event to finish second.

The marmalade factor

Travelling through four European countries [Cyprus, The United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Belgium, to be precise] meant Jyothi was exposed to different cuisines. And she made the conscious decision to try out new stuff at the buffet and skip the good old rice. “She’s had to learn to eat different food. She’s tried all the different foods, she likes some food like [pasta], some foods she can tolerate and there are some that she simply does not like.”

The only food item that Jyothi detested was the humble marmalade; Jyothi just could not palette the bitter-sweet orange puree. “She’s very curious so she put some marmalade on her toast and said ‘what’s this’. I said ‘it’s very sweet, it’s like chocolate.’ She took a bite of it and nearly got sick. She was like ‘oh that’s disgusting, how can you eat this?’

“And then I ate my toast with marmalade in front of her to make her feel worse. If she had a tub of marmalade in front of her, she’d probably run faster (laughs). This trip was always about that – we of course wanted her to perform, but it was also about helping her grow as a person,” he says.

Jyothi will embark on her second trip to Europe later this year for the Commonwealth Games. However, she is yet to make the cut for the World Athletics Championships, which is set at 12.84s. Maybe Hillier can use the X-factor – a bottle of marmalade – to help Jyothi run faster.