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BORN TO RUN

Blade runner

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As a teen, her maiden race ended in tears. Today, as Indian athletics' latest long-legged star, she is happiness personified. Who really is Ashwini Akkunji, the girl who has captured India's imagination with her runs at Guangzhou?

Her laugh has a soft, musical quality about it. It rents the air and fills it with its infectious sound. Fittingly, Ashwini Akkunji Chidananda was laughing on her way out of Bajpe airport in Mangalore on Tuesday; hands tucked into the front pockets of her flush-pink sweatshirt and head tossed back. The laugh, more prominent than the three gold medals she wore around her, masks an inner steel, which is the core of this spirited 23-year-old.

The attractive leggy, sporting bright blue nailpaint with a streak of silver running through it, provided the fireworks for Indian sport this season. Ashwini, from a little-known village called Jansale in Udupi district on the foothills of the Western Ghats, exploded onto the consciousness of connoisseurs and spectators during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, when she ran an adrenalin-charged third leg in the 1600-m relay to virtually seal gold for India. A month later, in the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, she returned a golden double. First, she showed a clean pair of heels to the rest of the field in the 400-m hurdles, in a personal best time of 56. 15 seconds and then she joined in the Indian party with another whopping effort in the relay.

"My life changed after the Commonwealth Games, " Ashwini says, sitting in the front-seat of a champagne gold Innova, one of the 15 vehicles that formed a convoy that would take her to her village in grand style. Her legs crossed and her arms moving in animated fashion, she points out that she can't remember the number of interviews and photo shoots she has done between the two quadrennial events. "It hasn't stopped, " she says as she rolls down the glass of the window to wave at school children, who were screaming out her name. "So many people just to see me!" she exclaims.

Funnily, it is the good days that bring back memories of the difficult ones. "There were days when, after long and draining practice sessions we wondered if anyone really cared. Who bothered about Indian athletes or whether we pushed ourselves beyond and above everything we thought we were capable of? What we did or how hard we worked?" says the girl. "In the Commonwealth Games, when we ran before packed galleries, those questions were answered. I have never seen so many people or experienced so much love from spectators, who had come to see us perform. Then to stand before that crowd with the Indian flag flying high, the national anthem playing and everyone in the stadium standing and singing along... It was the best moment of my life. I realised we make a difference, people care."

Ashwini's willingness to step up the pace, marked her out even as a child. She was always the first to throw up her hand every time her father needed one of his children to chase away stray cattle from their paddy fields. Her older sister, Deepti, adds, "She would also go into wooded areas looking for mushrooms during the season. It was actually a fun thing for us, but she was always so quick that she beat us all to it. " The monsoon often comes down in a relentless rage on Karnataka's southern coastal belt, making everyday life difficult. It wasn't uncommon for the paddy fields outside the family's modest three-room home to be water-logged. The kids waded through it with the help of their father, with Ashwini running ahead of her older siblings, brother Amit included, school bag in one hand and tiffin carrier in the other. They would run more than 2 km one way everyday to make the 30-minute bus ride to their school in neighbouring Hosangadi.

Ashwini, with easy grace and the body of a supermodel, hails from the Tulu-speaking Bunt tribe that originates from Mangalore and Udupi districts. The Bunts are one of the few communities in the country with matrilineal leanings where the girl child is often considered the family's treasured property. Traditionally, the Bunts adopted their mother's family names as their surnames. Some families like Ashwini's still follow that custom, which is where she derives her middlename 'Akkunji' from. A community known for its enterprise and sense of endeavour, which has given the world of showbusiness such names as Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty, has brought forth one of a sterner mettle: A young girl who carries on her slight, but unyielding shoulders golden-hued dreams of her land and people.

Named after Ashvini, the first nakshatra (star) in Hindu astronomy, the tough-talking, sweet-smiling ace's early foray into athletics was a teary one. Chidananda Shetty, an agriculturist, who raised his children on the returns from his five acres of land, stirred the fire by telling his children bedtime stories of feats of great athletes. For his youngest born, he saw a similar road.

When Ashwini was 13, he took her to the Vidyanagar Sports School in Bangalore. The teenager made the selection criteria except for her black, glossy waist-length hair which wasn't permitted in the facility. Chidananda had little choice but to take his reluctant daughter to a nearby saloon. "Do I have to cut it?" she asked her father, big, black eyes swimming in tears. He had no words for his little girl that afternoon. "That was the only time I saw him shed a tear, " Yashoda, Ashwini's mother, a woman of few words, said. That, however, marked the beginning of a string of sacrifices that Ashwini had to make in order to make a mark in athletics. After three years at Vidyanagar - where Ashwini would telephone home just once a week - she returned before moving to Jamshedpur's TATA academy, where she lived for the next five years.

The low point of her young life came in 2008, when a back injury threatened to halt her career. "I took a break and came back, but there were other issues. I used to run a lot of 800-m races. I wanted to shift to 400 m, but was without a coach. I didn't even have a job, " she says.

It is her emergence as India's premier hurdler, however, that has won her the biggest applause. "My coaches have long been telling me that with my height I should be doing hurdles, " the 5 ft 9' Ashwini says. Prior to the Commonwealth Games, outside of the odd National competitions she participated in, where she had clocked 59. 28 seconds, Ashwini said she hardly practiced for the event. It was only after New Delhi, that she started making a concentrated effort on the 400-m hurdles, under the watchful eyes of coach Yuri Ogorodnik. "Until then I didn't know the right technique or what it took to do the event, " Ashwini remembers. "
The 23-year-old talks of the relay foursome - Manjeet Kaur, Sini Jose, Mandeep Kaur and herself - as a family. "In individual competitions, we are very competitive, we all want to win, but in the relay we are one, we run as one. That's our strength, " she said.

The speedster enjoys nothing more than shaking a leg to Sunidhi Chauhan's hit numbers - Dhoom Machale and Beedi. Ashwini, heavily kohled eyes and hair pulled back in a ponytail, loves her jeans, low slung and slim fit preferably. "When I wear jeans, " she says, tapping the thick denim that covered the length of her shapely legs, "I feel tough. In a salwar, I feel like a girl, shy and inhibited. "

She says she thinks of herself as a mountaineer, always climbing. When she's travelling, she likes her luggage in one bag which she likes to strap on her back. "I'm independent. You know, I have the legs, I can get to anywhere I want, " she quips.
It has been a long year for Ashwini. Prior to this week, she had met her family for just a day last November, when her older sister Deepti got engaged. One of the first thoughts that crossed her mind the moment India clinched gold in the 4x400m relay in Guangzhou was 'I can go home now. I can go home to Mom and Dad'. Ashwini says she was hungry for her mother's fish curry - mackerel and prawns - cooked in a spicy coconut curry. She's also looking forward to some peace and quiet. "I don't think my body is tired, " she says, "but my mind needs some rest, some stillness."

Ashwini has embraced the hard road, the highs and lows of its difficult lay. "When you are at the starting line, all that matters is the ground you have to cover, " she says, "I have spent sleepless nights sitting on toilet seats when travelling to meets and then running the next day. I wouldn't use that as an excuse if I lost. For an athlete, the start is important, but equally important is the finish and where you finish. So, when I turn the corner and get on the home stretch, I'm only looking to win, nothing else matters. I love the straight, I feel like I own it."

Clearly, excuses aren't her story.

"I was born to run," she says, a big smile playing on her face, 'It is what I've done all my life - run; from one goal to another." Or, one gold to another.

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