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Once Bitten, Never Shy – How Jyothi Yarraji Went From Almost Quitting to Winning

Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.

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There are no castles at Hangzhou’s HOC Stadium, except the one Indian athlete Jyothi Yarraji had built. A castle – made not by bricks and mortar, but by dreams. A castle – inside which an explosive was detonated on 1 October, as the walls came crashing down.

Or so, it momentarily seemed.

She had been disqualified from the women’s 100m hurdles at the Asian Games, owing to an alleged false start. Yet, Jyothi held her ground and launched a protest, resulting in the eventual retraction of the decision. Having finished third in the race, she was awarded the silver medal following the initial gold medallist, China’s Yanni Wu’s disqualification.
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Standing Firm on the Face of Injustice

Reminiscing events from the day during a conversation with The Quint, Jyothi says:

Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.
I was very surprised by the incident. I thought I didn't do anything wrong, so why should I accept disqualification? I got so angry that I said I won’t leave until the decision is reversed.
Jyothi Yarraji, Asian Games medallist

Accompanying her was her coach and Reliance Foundation’s Athletics Director, James Hillier, who adds “I always tell Jyothi to control the controllables. There was drama in both the Asian Championships and Asian Games, and involving the same girl, as it turns out. Athletes need to be prepared for everything, and Jyothi was.”

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On the Verge of Quitting

To stand her ground, to not accept defeat at the drop of a hat, to lay down arms – for Jyothi, these are acquired traits. Ones she has developed over the last four years.

Before that, she was ready to quit.

With his father, Suryanarayana being a security guard, and mother, Kumari being a domestic help, Jyothi didn’t hail from a professional athletic lineage, but she explains how genes might have helped her being athletic.

I was very active since childhood. I think this has to do with the genes I have inherited from my mom. She isn’t an athlete. In fact, no one is. But my mom and all of my family members are very tall. I am the shortest of the lot.
Jyothi Yarraji, Asian Games medallist
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Encouraged by her school’s physical training teacher to get into athletics, Jyothi had a decent start, if not a whirlwind one. She would first train at Hyderabad, then at Guntur, win a medal here, and an accolade there.

But progress – which was not expeditious in the first place itself – took a massive hit following COVID-19’s emergence. With the sport doing very little to improve her family’s economic conditions, coupled with her own troubles, she decided to quit athletics altogether.

Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.
I have always wanted to be an athlete, but there was a time when I felt I was a big zero. I thought of quitting. COVID-19 had halted everything, I was just not progressing. I lacked confidence so much that for nearly a year, I didn’t do any workouts. I was scared to train.
Jyothi Yarraji, Asian Games medallist
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Plotting the Comeback Route

The comeback route was plotted in Bhubaneshwar, at the Odisha Reliance Foundation High Performance Centre. There, she first spent time with a psychologist to banish the mental blockage. Then, James Hillier prepared a plan for her – a gradually, but not rapidly intensifying one, where Jyothi started with the small hurdles before going back to her usual drills.

As he recalls the journey, James applauds Jyothi for how she carried herself. This particular trait, the coach believes, led the 24-year-old to an Asian Athletics Championships gold and an Asian Games silver.

What’s brilliant about Jyothi is the way she handles herself. There was a rainstorm and a false start at the Asian Championships, but she held herself together and got the gold. At the Asian Games, she had no time whatsoever to think about things, because everything happened so rapidly. But she still won a silver medal at the end of a very long season.
James Hillier, Jyothi's coach
Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.
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Dreaming Big, but Keeping Targets Realistic

Natural progression states one would aim for an Olympic medal after continental glory, but Indian athletes have never stood on the pinnacle sporting podium, barring the exception of Neeraj Chopra and Norman Pritchard.

The former happens to be one of Jyothi’s inspirations, as she strives for Neeraj-esque consistency.

My focus is always on the effort, never on the prize. Of course, every athlete dreams of a medal, but I want to concentrate on the work that I am putting in and becoming more consistent. See how consistent Neeraj bhaiya is, he performs everywhere he competes. He motivates me to be as consistent.
Jyothi Yarraji, Asian Games medallist
Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.
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James offers an insight into the way forward for Indian athletes:

Asian Games medal is like a springboard, but now, we need exposure and participation in international events. The Europeans compete in events like the Diamond League, which help them massively. Winning an Asian Games medal is good, but there’s huge competition in athletics. We need to acknowledge that and understand that we can’t just go from an Asian Games medal to an Olympic medal. There should not be any undue pressure on our athletes. Jyothi has done great, but it is important to realise that she is not a robot.
James Hillier, Jyothi's coach

Jyothi, however, is soaking the fame and recognition coming her way, with wind in her sails.

Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.
“I have worked so hard to be at the stage I am at now, so why should I feel pressure? Every athlete wants to win medals for their country, I am just grateful that I am being able to do this. People are now coming up to me, saying how I have inspired them. It feels great, and I consider this my responsibility to never let them down,” she says.
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Why Jyothi’s Medal Was a Pan-India Movement

Jyothi’s medals – and from the macrocosmic perspective, every Indian female athlete’s success – transcends the purely sport-dictated realm, for it offers girls in India, most of whom are not from economically gifted backgrounds, a rewarding alternative lifestyle. One, where their lives don’t revolve around their microcosmic families, but the family of a billion.

Elaborating on how athletics helped her – essentially – break the shackles, Jyothi says:

Jyothi Yarraji, who won a medal at Asian Games by standing firm against the Chinese, had once decided to quit.
Had I not been a professional athlete, I would have had to live the ‘normal’ life like girls from my area. By now, I would have been married and would be looking after my husband and kids. There are no athletes in my family, but my mom fought hard for my career. I hope my future generations will be athletes.
Jyothi Yarraji, Asian Games medallist
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James, a Brit, who, by now, knows all about the country’s untapped potential, and subsequently, its drawbacks, hopes Jyothi’s success will inspire other girls to break the shackles.

There is pressure on girls from the families, but Jyothi has shown the girls that there is a different route available. And this route is completely fine from the cultural aspect as well. Jyothi can live a happily married life with her husband and kids when the time comes, nothing is stopping her from doing that. But not at such a young age. Look at how proud Jyothi’s mom and dad are now. We can use it as an example to educate the parents that it is okay for girls to pursue a career in athletics. I have so many talented girls. I firmly believe that for India, female athletes are the future.
James Hillier, Jyothi's coach

The Yarraji household, certainly, is proud. But more importantly, so is the nation. For in a 24-year-old, many have seen a beau ideal, who once had every reason to stop, but for that she didn’t then, she, in all likelihood, never will.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Olympics   Athletics   Asian Games 

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