A yoga instructor would have been pleased, but Singh is an athletics coach. Among his specialties is the high jump. When Singh watched the lithe 11-year-old, he knew he had a student. That was five years ago. That student, Pooja Singh, is a medal hope today for India at the Asian Games in China. The teenager’s family has no sporting background.
It was difficult to believe athletics could be my future: Teen prodigy
The teenager won gold at the Youth Asian Championship in Tashkent earlier this year. She went on to clinch a silver at the Junior Asian Championship in South Korea and a bronze in the Youth Commonwealth Games in Trinidad & Tobago. She won gold at the Senior Inter State Championship with a 1.8m jump and qualified for the Asian Games. At the government yoga camp where Pooja had gone with her father in 2018, Singh had walked up to them and proposed giving high jump a shot. They agreed. And that’s where this story began. Her first test was to clear a 2- foot height and she did that with ease. “She was already flexible because she was doing tough yoga poses. It took a few attempts testing her on the side-straddle technique, but she cleared it,” said Singh. The straddle method involves an athlete jumping face forward and twisting the body midair to cross over the horizontal bar.
Assured of her potential, the coach decided to put all into training her. The high jump gear, however, was too expensive for them — Singh had limited means and Pooja’s father was a mason, who mostly earned daily wages. So, Singh innovated — he had bamboo poles for bars and a jumping pit made from haystacks for Pooja to land on a cushioned surface. The struggles have paid off.
A private company now sponsors Pooja. The 16-year-old told TOI it was difficult for her to believe athletics could be her future. “We could not even dream of pursuing sports as a profession. It requires a lot of investment – time, money and energy. I’m glad our financial situation is starting to improve now,” she said. People started recognising her, she added, when they noticed there was no other girl participating in high jumps in the district. “When I started winning medals at the state and national level, (financial) support began to improve,” she said, emphasising the roles of athletics coach Sunder Sihag of the Haryana sports department and Hanuman Singh Bangaon, the director of physical education at the education department, in her success. Pooja’s father Hansraj said he was happy she could take up a sport, something he wished to, but couldn’t. “I would play kabaddi in school, but I never knew how to take it forward. I became a mason after my marriage… I’m glad Pooja is fulfilling both of our dreams,” he said. What he hadn’t anticipated was how quickly she would progress. “As a child, she was strong and flexible. She would jump up on a charpoy and twist through its ropes with ease. But I never thought that if I put her in sports, she would achieve so much. I didn’t even consider athletics. Pooja was the one who told me she wanted to try yoga five years back and that’s how we ended up at the camp,” he said.
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