Jumping hurdles, one after the other: Sapna sets out to chase her dream

She ran from doctor to doctor in her native state of Jharkhand, then traveled to Delhi, and flew to Kerala in search of proper treatment for her shin bone fracture. However, everywhere he was given the same diagnosis. ‘It will fix itself’. Sapna Kumari was losing hope; In her own words, she was sinking into depression. “I thought about quitting the sport,” she recalls.

Sapna Kumari (Reliance Foundation)

But everything changed when in 2018 he got a job letter from CISF.

Today, Sapna Kumari is one of India’s hottest prospects in the 100m hurdles along with Jyoti Yaraji, and finished second (behind Yaraji) at the recently concluded Indian Grand Prix 3 in Bengaluru.

An athlete’s success is often the result of years of dedication, hard work, and sacrifice. But in the case of 23-year-old Sapna Kumari, it includes not only her sacrifice, but also that of her sister – who made an incredibly selfless decision to set aside her own passion and dreams for another. Hindustan Times sat down with the Indian track and field athlete as he took a detailed look at his career so far and his aspirations.

Tell us about your journey. How did you get into athletics?

I have an elder sister, she was also an athlete. I was not an athlete at that time, but he inspired me to play sports. She used to take me to the grounds and I love that. While I was often practicing on the field, Rajeev Ranjan Singh noticed me, and eventually became my first coach. He used to say that I would do very well in athletics. But my mother was against both of us playing sports. We are four siblings and mother wanted everyone to focus on studies. But this was not possible. Eventually my sister gave up sports for me. In 2013, I was selected for the Sports Authority of India and tried for long jump.

But soon, SAI coach Vinod Kumar Singh urged me to take up the hurdles. Mother used to hide my shoes when I was at home, but I used to go on the ground regardless. When I returned home, I would barge in, fearing that she would kill me. Many people used to tell my mother that I should not be allowed to go to sports because it is not for girls, and she would start interacting with the boys. But once I started winning medals, my mother finally allowed me to continue. He supported me, and my father also joined in.

Now that you are an Indian athlete, everything must have changed for you…

Everyone is very happy. My mother keeps waiting for me to come home. Now, she makes what I want to eat! In 2018, I came home after the World Championships, but soon I injured my leg. My mother used to be under a lot of stress after that because I could not fully recover from it. It didn’t heal completely till 2021 and during that time I had to face some difficulties. People used to say that her leg is broken, what will she do now? I didn’t even have a full-time job, so my mom was very upset.

It was a very struggling time for me, but mother tried her best to get me treated. I went to Kerala, Delhi, and consulted several doctors in Jharkhand, but no one could actually prescribe the right treatment for the injury.

What exactly was the injury?

I had a shin bone injury, it was a hairline fracture. It was a normal fracture but it bothered me a lot. At one point I thought I would quit the sport. Doctors also said that it will get cured on its own, we cannot do anything. I packed my bags and left for home. I sank into depression because I didn’t even have a job, because I couldn’t concentrate on studies because of sports. But then, I got joining letter from CISF which came as a blessing at that time. When I got there, I don’t know how… By the grace of God, or by the blessings of my family, I started feeling better as I completed my practice sessions. Within a few months I was fit again.

Was it difficult getting back on track after that injury?

My coach at SAI used to motivate me a lot. I joined CISF through sports quota. I started jogging and my sister, mother and father inspired me a lot. When I ran my first obstacle course, I was very intimidated. I thought that when I have some pain, I will go to the hospital. Occasionally, I still feel some pain in the shin bone, but it is not related to the fracture. But regardless, the physios there keep a close eye on my fitness and whenever this happens my shin bone hurts.

You mentioned that you started with long jump. Why did you switch to 100m hurdles?

In 3-4 months, you usually see some improvement in a particular category. But I didn’t see any significant improvement in long jump. I personally didn’t believe I could make a future out of it and my coaches thought the same. There was a senior in the academy who used to interrupt at the time, and I followed him. The next year (2014) in the inter-district national championships, I won the gold medal and I became more and more convinced that this is where I can make my future. It’s been 9 years since then.

How did James Hiller approach you for the Reliance Foundation?

James sir messaged me on Facebook when I got injured. He said there were trials in November and he wanted me to be a part of Reliance Foundation. I looked up to Jyoti at that time and I always thought that if I get a chance, I can really make a mark. I was very happy when I got the message. You can practice everywhere, but I didn’t know much about a proper diet, or a systematic way of training including the physio.

I was completely broken after the injury. But I made a fresh start under James. They called me to Odisha, they asked me to experience the camp. I noticed that the diet was very organised, there were many physios who took care of the training routine and fitness. I used to get injured a lot but ever since I have been associated with the foundation, I have not faced any injury. Reliance has supported me a lot, I cannot even express in words.

Jyoti Yaraji is one of India’s leading prospects in the 100m hurdles. Since you both train together, how is your relationship with him?

She is like my sister. She supports me a lot. When I came here, it was all very new to me and Jyoti helped me a lot through that whole process, and she still does. She keeps advising me on things related to training and practice. It doesn’t even feel like she is my competitor. We have a very good relationship.

You recently participated in the Indian Grand Prix. What are your goals for this season?

Right now my focus is on the Asian Games. My workout plans are the same as Jyoti’s, but obviously, she is more efficient now as she has been here for a while. I’m new, so I’m getting used to it. Jyoti and James sir have supported me a lot since I came here in November. Our preparations are going well. We are confident that we can qualify and do well in the Asian Games.

Have you set any goals in terms of time?

We were in mid season now. Our coach was paying attention to our improvement and so we went to the Grand Prix. There was a lot of air force at that time so we really couldn’t do our best there. Right now my goal is 13 seconds; Jyoti is close to 12. The qualifying mark is 13.2, but I am targeting within 13. I hope I will qualify.

You also participated in the 100 meters race in the Grand Prix. Was there any specific reason behind this?

I would focus on the constraints. It’s good to have side events, and I ran the 100m because it helps improve your speed. However, I did participate in the 100m race at the Youth Nationals in 2015-16. This was my first experience as a senior player and the coach has urged me to participate in 100m in every event as it helps with speed.

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