With two medals at U20 Worlds, quarter-miler Rupal in fast lane to elite level

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Just a few days ahead of the ongoing U-20 World Championships in Colombia, quarter-miler Rupal’s father Omvir went to clear his dues at the local store in Meerut town he’s been frequenting for more than a decade. When the store manager pulled out the register, Omvir couldn’t find his name against the amount he owed. But instead, the name column read: “Rupal ke papa (Rupal’s dad).

Mera naam heen bhul ghaye.(They’ve forgotten my name). Imagine, I have been visiting their store for over a decade and they know me so well but I’m Rupal’s father, not Omvir, to them,” he says proudly.

There’s good reason for it. After running the final leg for the silver-winning mixed relay team, Rupal added another junior Worlds medal to her cabinet, finishing third in the 400m race with a personal best of 51.85s. The feat makes the 17-year-old from Shahpur Jainpur village in Meerut the first Indian to win two medals at the same edition of the U-20 Worlds. Yemi Mary John of Great Britain won the gold (51.50s) ahead of Kenya’s Damaris Mutunga( 51.71s).

It was Rupal’s fifth 400m race (mixed relay heats and finals, 400m heats, semis and finals) in the last few days. She still has her women’s 4x400m event left and could end up potentially running seven quarter-mile races in less than a week. But her coaches Vishal and Amita Saxena aren’t worried about the workload. “We have prepared her well,” they say.

Although the family is pleased with Rupal’s run at the Worlds so far, they aren’t going to town with the celebrations so far. “She could have taken a better start,” says Omvir pointing out a weakness that the youngster has been trying to overcome for some time. Interestingly, Omvir had never been to a stadium in his life until 2018 when he went coach-hunting for his daughter at the Kailash Prakash Stadium, about 20km away.

Rupal comes from a farming family with no background in sports. Her interest sparked after watching seniors at her school. “She used to read the local papers and was fascinated by Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu and would read everything written on them. She wanted her photo to appear in the paper like her idols,” says Omvir.

Made for running

Even before Vishal first saw Rupal running, it was her build that got the attention of the coach. “She has long limbs, a good height and a steady head that is ideal for runners. Her stride lengths are above 2m. It may appear she is running slow but she is covering a lot more distance faster than what meets the eye,” explains Vishal.

“So when Rupal arrived, I realised we need her more than she needs us,” jokes Amita.

Within no time, Rupal stood out in her age group events. She returned with medals and trophies from almost every meet she took part in. The size of prizes increased so much that her father had to get a trophy cabinet installed in her room. “Woh dekho phir bhi hanger pe medal latak rahein hain. (Despite that, we have to hang some medals on the cloth hangers),” says Omvir as he points out a wall.

Rupal first came into limelight in October last year when she clocked 53.73s at the 400m Nationals. The then 16-year-old’s timings were better than even the senior women’s winner. At the U20 Fed Cup in June, where she was named the best athlete, the Meerut girl beat fancied Priya Mohan for the 400m title.

That victory boosted her confidence immensely. “Woh itni badi athlete hai.

Mein bas gaon ki ladki hun (She’s a star, I’m just a village girl),” she had brushed off any comparisons.

Being blessed with an athletic body does not alone guarantee success on the track. Rupal wakes up at 3:30 am on most days and prepares a quick meal before Omvir ferries her to KP Stadium for the 4:30 am practice. Her dedication and hunger are second to none, believes coach Vishal.

“She lives 20km away but not once has she turned up late for practice. Some people live literally 5 mins away and arrive late. She has complete trust in us. She is so obedient that if I ask her to switch to marathon, she won’t even ask why,” says Vishal.

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Now that Rupal has already made history with two junior Worlds medals, Omvir can probably forget being called by his actual name anymore. “Everyone has Rupal’s photo or video as their WhatsApp status. I feel proud and happy to be called Rupal’s father. With a few more medals, our village won’t be perhaps called Shahpur Jainpur anymore but Rupal ka gaon,” he says.

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