Friday, May 27, 2011

Raising the bar

To most of the staff and students of Bangalore Medical College, Kyathi Vakharia is just another student. Like any other fourth year, she juggles between interning at Bowring Hospital, pouring through medical journals, and waking up at the crack of dawn to revise for semester exams.

Every evening, when she trades her white coat for a sports vest and trainers, she switches between the two lives she leads. In one, she’s just one of the 1,655 students in India preparing to a graduate into one of the most sought-after profession in the country. In the other, she’s India’s youngest women’s pole vault champion.

“It was the most exciting experience of my life,” the shy 22-year-old gushes, as she describes her recent outing at the National Games last month, where she bagged a gold medal for Karnataka. “It was down to just the two of us, and it was quite close. I did much better than the target my coach had in mind for me.”

Vakharia vaulted a height of 3.65 meters, breaking her own previous record and inching closer to the national record.

Finding her feet

Vakharia entered the sport in the same way that many other famous women vaulters like Elena Isinbayeva did—through gymnastics.

“When I was 5, I went to watch my brother at gymnastics practice and soon ended up picking it up as well,” she says. Vakharia is no stranger to the National Games—she participated as a gymnast when she was 11.
“I was very young and it was just great exposure,” Vakharia says, “so this time when I went back to the National Games, it was like a second coming for me.”

The lanky athlete decided to switch sports only three years ago in her 12th grade .
“There isn’t very much scope for gymnastics in the country, so I decided to move to pole vault,” the high school graduate from Baldwin Girls’ School says. “I’d been doing track and field events for a while and that point, so it made sense.”

However, finding a coach wasn’t easy, especially when there are only “two or three qualified pole vault coaches in India.”
“I met M.S. Upadhayaya, who is an air force coach and he agreed to train me,” says Vakharia. “He’s very cooperative and understands that I have to balance academics with sports.”

Three months after she began training, Vakharia took part in a state athletic meet. In her first attempt at the competitive level, she jumped 2.90 meters, which won her gold and broke the state record at the time as well.

Failing to clear

However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the young pole vaulter. She’s missed out on big chances, most recently at the Commonwealth Games trials.

“I don’t know what happened, I’d been jumping 3.60 in the practice grounds in Patiala before the event,” Vakharia reminisces, with a hint of disappointment in her voice. In hindsight, she sees that her pole selection was completely wrong.

“Everybody was asking why I was performing like that and it was the biggest heartbreak I had,” she says, admitting that it was the lowest point in her career so far.

However, Vakharia vindicated herself and silenced her critics with last month’s gold at the National Games.
“I have at least proved myself now,” she says, adding that a big performance in the Asian Games is not too far away.

So what sporting sights has she set herself on next?
“Well, I think I can definitely qualify for the next Asian Games and place at the Commonwealth games as well,” she says, “but the ultimate dream, of course, is making it to the Olympics!”

Balancing medical school and sports

“I always wanted to be a doctor even before I wanted to do sports,” Vakharia says firmly, “and sports is just a hobby—something that happened along the way.”

She agrees that studying medicine makes her the Indian sportswoman with “the best safety net.”
“After all these successes, I’m starting to consider making sports a full-time option/agenda,” she says, “but I don’t know how things will work out.”

But unlike many of her Sport Authority of India (SAI) peers who choose to opt out of education entirely, Vakharia displays a level-headedness well beyond her age. A sport, she agrees, is never a sure thing.

“I can’t rely on sport forever, it might not click tomorrow,” Vakharia says, adding that her parents have always been incredibly supportive. “But like my mum always tells me, right now is when I can do sports. I can always return to medicine and do a postgraduate course later.”

Vakharia manages the rigor of a professional academic course with her pole vault career effectively.

‘Well, I’m up by 4.30 every morning,” Vakharia says with a grin, revealing what an average day in her life is like. “I study for an hour and I’m train until breakfast.”

She’s in college by 8 and often has to go to hospitals across the city as a part of her posting. Vakharia finishes post-lunch lectures by 4 in the evening and is back in SAI’s training grounds in an hour. After a rigorous three-hour evening session, she hits the books by dinnertime and often “falls asleep with them” by eleven at night.

There are definitely times when the pressure really gets to her.

“I can remember several times when I’ve felt very frustrated,” Vakharia says. “Especially because my coach comes in only twice a week and I’m on my own for most of the training sessions. I sometimes wonder what I’m meant to do.”

Vakharia’s coach though, is very supportive of her academic life as well.

“Most coaches try to push their athletes very hard, but mine doesn’t,” Vakharia, who wants to specialize in orthopedics, says. “When the Asian track and field competitions came up, he told me that I didn’t have to do it this year because of my course and that there will be other events next year.”

“I live on the SAI campus for the entire week and I get to go home on Sundays,” the disciplined young athlete says. “I think the last time I went out was between tournaments a few months ago when I went to Gujarat to meet relatives,” she adds, struggling to remember the last time she just lazed about.

Most of her college doesn’t know about her secret other life and Vakharia often has to get “proxy attendance” when she occasionally skives off class to attend practices.

“I’m not in the sport because I want fame, so I’m okay with not being recognized,” Vakharia says, responding to comparisons made with young cricketers who are mobbed by fans and the media. “I do this because I love the sport, that’s all.”

Does she ever feel like she’s missed out on a regular high school and university life?

“Not really, I’m not the partying sort anyway,” Vakharia says, with a smile. “I’ve chosen this path because I really want to, and I’m very happy with my life.”

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