No open waters, roads: Indian team beat odds to make triathlon debut

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FOR ALMOST half a decade, Pragnya Mohan has risen before the sun so she can roam freely on Ahmedabad’s ring road, to avoid the city’s notorious traffic. She is spending six months abroad, in Australia and Spain, to be able to, among other things, train in open waters, which is practically impossible in the polluted and crocodile-infested rivers of Gujarat and most of the world. ‘India. The 27-year-old suffered five major road accidents, while training or competing, had two surgeries and had metal rods inserted into her wrist and leg.

On Friday, day 1 of the mega event in Birmingham, the qualified accountant will lead the Indian team which will make its triathlon debut at the commonwealth games. India sent a four-member team – Adarsh ​​MS, Vishwanath Yadav and Sanjana Joshi being the other three – to Birmingham in a sport that incorporates swimming, cycling and running into one race and where the country has virtually no history.

However, the focus will be on Pragnya, who is also a national and South Asian champion, as the only Indian to have competed in a Triathlon World Cup. “We knew she had the ability within her to make a career out of sports,” says Pratap, Pragnya’s father. No one, however, could have guessed that it would be the triathlon.

At first they thought it might be swimming, a sport where Pragnya started competing at the age of eight. “She was good but never won a medal; the best she finished at nationals (age group) was fourth,” says Prateek, her older brother. “At the same time, we used to have mini-marathons at school. She could easily win that, beating girls twice her age.

Cycling was more of a constraint than a choice. The pool where Pragnya trained was 10 km from her house. Initially, Pratap would drop her and pick her up daily. But after having to change cities due to work commitments, Pragnya and Prateek decided to take it to the pool and back. “Every day she cycled 20 km,” says Prateek.

For years, the three sports were looked at individually, but that changed in 2013 when she won a 50km cycling race “without much training” and won Rs 1 lakh as prize money. “She loved to swim and was good at running; after that race, we realized that she is also good at cycling,” says Prateek, who is part of the organizing team for the Chess Olympiad held in Chennai. Pratap, now retired, adds: “We knew what triathlon was because there were a few people from Gujarat who had tried it. So we thought why not combine all three disciplines and give it a shot? »

However, there was a problem – there were no good triathlon coaches. Pragnya continued to train for all three sports individually, under different coaches. “But they were all trying to pull her in their direction because she was good at all of them. They didn’t know how to balance the three sports. So I had to take matters into my own hands,” says Pratap, 61, who decided to coach his daughter.

A decade ago, he says, there was little reference material online – written and video. So he turned to “The Triathlete’s Training Bible”, a book by American Joe Friel, “the father of scientific work on triathlon”.

While IIT and IIM graduate Pratap learned triathlon techniques and tried them on her daughter (“I used to experiment on her and sometimes it didn’t work,” laughs -il), Pragnya pursued her CA degree, which she completed in 2017. But instead of living a life as an accountant, she decided to take up triathlon full-time.

It wasn’t that simple. “We faced two major problems: the sport is relatively unknown in India and therefore resources are limited, whether it’s roads to ride a bike or a place to swim,” says Prateek , 29 years. “The biggest challenge is the bike. The only way to ride our roads is to get up before dark and finish the whole session before 7am when the traffic starts. For elite level speeds, it is impossible to cycle on the roads. So she wakes up every day between 4 and 4:30 a.m. and leaves for training before 5 a.m., ”he says.

Pratap talks about the other big hurdle: inaccessibility to Olympic pools as well as open waters, given that triathlon swim races are held in open waters. “Not just in Ahmedabad, but all over Gujarat, most lakes and rivers are infested with crocodiles; it’s because of a conservation project going on in the state,” says Pratap. “People bathe there but you have to take a lot of precautions, which is not always practically possible. The Sabarmati River, on the other hand, has water for about one month a year.

So, for a race that takes place in open water, Pragnya trains in a 25-meter pool, which is not ideal. “In the swimming pool, we turn every 50m or 25m, as in the case of Pragnya. So you get a push in the turn and therefore, you are faster. We have noticed that for every 100m, the timing in the pool is 3-4 seconds faster than in open water, which is significant,” says Pratap.

Therefore, for the past four years, Pragnya has spent six months a year in Australia or Spain, investing the prize money she earned while running in marathons across the country, as well as the stipend earned during her internships. in CA, apart from the support provided by his family.

Self-funded, coached by her father and navigating the very demanding world of triathlon without much support from the federation or the government, Pragnya has recorded personal bests of around 11 minutes in the swim (750m), 32 minutes on the bike (20km) , and 19 minutes in a 5km run.

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Those times are in the sprint triathlon, which is half the Olympic distance, which puts her in 24th place on the start list for Friday’s race, where she will face some of the best triathletes from Bermuda, England, from Australia, Scotland and Canada. and New Zealand, a country with a rich history in sport.

“This is an important stepping stone,” says Pratap. “Our ultimate goal is the Olympics. We have a little less than two years to make the cut.

Pragnya is ranked 372nd in the world – the best among Indians – but her schedules, according to Prateek and Pratap, are closer to those near the top 100. To qualify for the Olympics, she will need to be in the top 70. That might seem like a dream too far at the moment, but Pratap is quietly optimistic.

“We try hard,” he says. “The rest, we’ll see.

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