No other woman hurdler from India apart from Jyothi Yarraji has ever run a sub 13s 100m race. But the 23-year-old has achieved the feat five times already this year. The latest sub-13s race came at the ongoing Inter-state competition in Bhubaneswar just a day after she beat seasoned sprinted Srabani Nanda for gold in the 100m.
Jyothi has set such lofty standards for herself that a sub-13s run is almost expected of her every time she steps on the field to compete in the hurdles. But that pressure doesn’t affect her anymore.
“I know I will run below 13s but what actually runs on my mind is to not touch the hurdles while racing. My aim is to just perform consistently, I know that records cannot be broken every time,” she says.
Jyothi arguably is one of the finest athletes on the circuit at the moment but her initial days in sports never indicated she had the potential to make it big. Jyothi is a late bloomer who tried her hands at athletics when she was 17.
Ask her what she was doing until then. “Just chilling,” comes the witty reply in no time. Jyothi took up sports only because she was bored with the classes in school and sports training allowed her to skip the last period every day. “I had no idea about athletics. Zero knowledge about athletics. I was just happy I could skip the classes,” she said.
But she gradually developed a liking for sports and then she just casually went for selections for the Sports Authority of India sports hostel in Hyderabad in 22016. “I had no idea I just went there and got selected. I did not even know what hurdles were back then,” she said.
But Yarraji did not excel immediately after the joining SAI hostel nor did she show some extraordinary potential. On the other hand, she almost made coach Ramesh regret his decision to call up young Jyothi.
Back then she was tiny, so Jyohti took five steps before leaping the hurdles, unlike the five steps she currently uses. “I think my first hurdle timing was 22 seconds. I would fall down at least once a week in training. I would fall so often that Coach Ramesh almost stopped caring.”
There was one occasion when the screws in the hurdles went through her shin area due to an awkward jump. “More than the injury I was scared of the dose I would get from coach Ramesh,” she said.
Ramesh wanted Jyothi to try all disciplines and find what suits her best but the younger would only end up causing more confusion for the seasoned coach. “I was asked to try high jump but I would always hit the bar from below. He tried to teach the Fosbury flop but my hand would always hit the bar,” she said.
“I was asked to try javelin but only my arm would move and the javelin wouldn’t go anywhere,” she said.
Such was Jyothi’s reputation at the hostel that athletes would maintain a safe distance while she held the javelin. “The javelin would land just right in front of me. They knew about me so whenever I held the javelin no other athlete dared to come near me,” she said.
An attempt at long jump yielded similar results. “I was asked to try the long jump but my ankle got twisted,” she said.
It wasn’t only coach Ramesh who was worried about Jyothi injuring herself. Jyothi, who says she is still a very clumsy person, ended up falling into the box during physio training. “I was asked to jump over them but I don’t have a clue how I landed into them.
After the box incident, Rameh felt he needed to intervene. He asked young Jyothi what she was interested in apart from sports. Jyothi said she liked to draw and the next week Jyothi went to the ground with her drawing pad. “He bought me a drawing pad, and some colour pencils and just asked me to come to the ground and draw every day. That was my work for one week, no training.
When Jyothi went for her first national level meet, the 2017 Youth Nationals, no one had any hopes for her. “I myself did not have any hopes. I just went there to participate but ended up with a gold medal”
That made Jyothi believe she belongs in the sport. Fast forward to 2023, she now currently trains under Reliance Foundation Coach James Hillier with the country’s finest young athletes.
Her season best of 12.84 seconds makes her the Asia leader with six Japanese hurdlers following her. She also holds the overall fourth spot in the Asia rankings. But she isn’t currently thinking about medals but only improving her timing.
Even Jyohti sometimes feels a little amazed to see her own journey from an under achieving athlete to a world-class hurdler. She credits her coaching team at the Reliance Foundation for moulding her into a fine athlete.
“Without the team, nothing will happen. We just think about training the rest is taken care of by the team. Training is just 50 per cent the rest is recovery, nutrition and physios make the rest.”