Physical gifts: Jyothi’s coaches feel that her height, long legs and strong tendons help make her a natural hurdler.
Improved technique: Jyothi has worked on her posture to enhance her natural speed.
A little over a year later, the usual 33-inch hurdle that Jyothi Yarraji had cleared countless times suddenly seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Just after New Year’s day in 2020, Jyothi sailed past 10 of them at the All India Inter-University Athletics Championships in Moodbidri, Karnataka, to clock 13.03s, 0.35s better than Anuradha Biswal’s national record from 2002.
Although it was not ratified as the best in the country as there was no one to test the competitors, the performance propelled Jyothi into the limelight as one of the brightest prospects in athletics. But eighteen months later, that glimmering promise seems to have faded. The pandemic and a combination of injuries – hamstring, groin and left knee (meniscus tear) – meant that an obstacle began to resemble an insurmountable mountain.
“I couldn’t block everything,” Jyothi recalled. “I was very scared. [Prior to that] I couldn’t walk properly for six months. Then I began my return. The first two months were just horrible. Flat runs are easier, but hurdling is difficult. I was afraid of every step.”
A surprising change
The 23-year-old’s transformation from that state to the athlete he is today — national record holder in the 100m hurdles, owner of four best Indian times in the discipline and the only one from the country to run officially that sub-13 – second race – is surprising. This season, he has rewritten the national record four times, including three times in an impressive fortnight in May in Europe where he first lowered it to 13.23s (Cyprus), then to 13.11s (Loughborough , England) and then at 13.04s (The Netherlands).
On either side of the stretch of these results, he had two performances that were better than the then national best, but were considered to have been aided by the wind (more than the permitted 2 m/s) and were therefore not taken into account. This included his stunning 12.79s at the National Games in Gujarat in early October. There was also the Inter-State Championship in Chennai in June where he tripped over a hurdle and finished last.
But it wasn’t long before he proved his mettle again, this time in Bengaluru on a cold and rainy night at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, by going under 13s to 12.82s. After settling for the realities of competitive sport earlier and submitting to its many idiosyncrasies, that victory in the final race of the year was a taste of salvation.
“I did three races back to back, at 7:30 pm, 8:20 pm and 9:20 pm, and that was tough,” Jyothi said. “But my good endurance training helped me to be consistent in the heats and in the final. The conditions were also difficult — windy, rainy and slippery. So there are questions in my mind. But I want just finish my season faster and higher, and everything ended well.”
Shaped by hard work
It’s safe to say that growing up in Visakhapatnam, this was not the future he envisioned for himself. His father is a security guard and mother is a hospital worker; graduation is a challenge. The school doesn’t have much appeal. Running is his way out.
Dronacharya awardee N. Ramesh, who first saw Jyothi aged 16 during selections for the Sports Authority of India’s Hyderabad center and then trained her for three years, said that the childhood hardships helped shape him.
“He came from a very poor family in Vizag,” says Ramesh. “A woman or a man from that background knows what struggle is. That is the main reason. He has very good general intelligence and is a very quick learner. But his fighting spirit is something [else].
“When he came to my center, he was raw and didn’t know much about hurdling. Seeing his physical features — good height (5’9”) and long legs — I thought he could do it. As an athlete, when you know no choice, you do everything. When you are hungry, you will eat anything, you have no choice,” Ramesh adds.
According to Welshman James Hillier, where Jyothi now trains at the Odisha Reliance Foundation High Performance Centre, she is a naturally talented athlete but also someone who is willing to accept rigorous training techniques and develop the right attitude.
“She’s got really good natural speed, something you need in abundance in the women’s 100m hurdles,” Hillier said. “He has really good quality tendons, which allow him to use force very well. And the attitude is very good. Even after breaking the national record many times, after every race he says that he should do more great
The 100m hurdles is a highly technical discipline and is among the most demanding events in track and field. An athlete needs to be free like a sprinter but keep it up during the hurdle clearance without losing too much horizontal speed. Jyothi seems to marry these two aspects very well, because at the National Games, she won the 100m dash, beating Dutee Chand and Hima Das, before going to the hurdles.
Much also depends on how to deal with — and manipulate — three constants: distance to the first hurdle (13m), hurdle height (33 inches) and the distance between each hurdle (8.5m). For any athlete, no matter how long or short the natural stride, the standard is to have three strides between two hurdles, each measuring approximately 1.8m. So where is a race won or lost?
“You have to create that environment [for minute improvements] in training,” explained Hillier. You can reduce the distance between obstacles to, say, 8m from 8.5m. Jyothi needs to be quicker and shorter in her steps. That will help him get up to speed faster and he’ll get used to clearing obstacles faster because he can run faster through them.
“There are loads of things you can do and the thing is, he is quite brave and excited when I do something new. And he doesn’t get angry when he does something wrong.
“There is also a posture. When I was first with Jyothi, the head was up and down. It wastes energy and will slow you down. But in the 12.82s race in Bangalore, the head is almost a straight line. That takes a lot of work in the gym and we do it every day.
After all, 2022 is a coming-of-age season for Jyothi. His timing in Bengaluru (12.82s), in fact, places him 43rd in the world and second in Asia for this year. This is just 0.04s off the 2023 World Athletics Championships cutoff. With the Asian Games set to be held next year, he is a sure-shot medal prospect.
“I want him to think bigger than the Asian level,” Hillier said. “You’re aiming for Worlds, and by default you can be at the top level in Asia. It’s like this — you reach for the stars and reach the moon, you’ll be really happy. That’s the mentality I want him to have and I think he’s open to that.”