The starter pistol is shot into the air.
Rakshita and Radha set off. Running towards glory, away from nay-sayers, they are confident and their strides, sure-footed. With breeze on their faces and subtle instructions from their guides, these visually impaired athletes are winners on and off the track.
Rakshita (18) is from Baluguddanahalli, a tiny hamlet in Chikmagalur, and Radha (20) is from Bamsamudra village in Chitradurga. Having qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics 2020, Rakshita is a 1,500-metres specialist in the T-11 category (para-athletes are categorised according to the severity of disability), while Radha runs the 1,500m and 400m in the T-12 category.
Running with guides
A visually impaired runner is accompanied by an able-bodied, sighted guide during a race. The guide ensures the runner’s co-ordination, alignment within the assigned lane and also, prepares the runner for a curve on the track. How do they do this? Both runner and guide hold onto a small piece of rope called the tether and they communicate by brushing the elbows, a touch here or a tug there, during the run or when a turn comes up. These subtle signals require daily practice. For, they are a team and the understanding between them plays a significant role in the athlete’s performance. The guides are also awarded medals when runner wins.
DID YOU KNOW?
Medals of blind athletes make a rattling sound. The varied tones help them distinguish between gold, silver, and bronze.
Rakshita and Radha studied at the Asha Kirana Andha Makkala Shale (Government School for the Blind), Chikamagalur, where students are encouraged to take part in sports. Their physical education teachers, Gopal and Manjanna P, ensured that promising athletes got to participate in State and national-level para athletic competitions. It was at one such event that their present coach, Rahul Balakrishna, spotted the girls. “Initially, I found it difficult to convince others about the girls’ potential,” recalled Mr Balakrishna, who is a clerk in the South Western Railways and a junior national medallist in 1,500m himself.
“But I did not give up. I decided to fund them myself with a Rs 2-lakh loan, so they could compete in qualifier events (in Paris) for the Asian Games. I always knew that if I planned their training and diet right, both Rakshita and Radha had the mental toughness to overcome all obstacles,” he stressed. Apart from Mr Balakrishna, the girls work with Soumya Savanth, a forester in the Forest Department and Govind -- both former national-level athletes.
• Asian Para Games (Jakarta) - Gold
• Junior World Para Championships (Switzerland) – Gold
• Asian Para Games (Jakarta) – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze
• Junior Asian Youth Para Games (Dubai) – 2 Silvers
The girls’ day begins at dawn. Practice sessions include endurance runs, strength training, and stability drills. Since Rakshita is in grade 10 and Radha is pursuing her Bachelor of Arts course, it is study time for them from 10 a.m for two hours. They even prepare their own notes, in braille! “We cannot attend regular classes because of our sporting commitments,” said the girls who nonchalantly juggle their studies with their running. After studies is nap time, then they head back to Sports Authority of India (SAI), Kengeri, for evening practice. “Shifting to Bangalore two years ago, under Rahul Sir and Soumya ma’am’s guidance, has taught us professionalism. I do miss home but getting to learn and improve everyday has been fun and satisfying,” said Radha.
Rakshita, on her part, has big plans. “The next few months are very exciting. I aim to win an Olympic medal and top my school in the board exams,” she declared confidently.
The rattling medals around their necks acknowledge the journey from remote villages to the podium; these champions are determined to reach for the stars.