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'He was the best, he was rotten too'

I have a name. I prefer though, if you thought of me as just an athlete. Nameless, faceless. Most times, it is how I feel. I had a dream. I dreamt of running in the Olympics Games, of winning medals for India at the highest level. I was off the blocks pretty quickly, but along the way the dream was destroyed by a sequence of events that forced me to see the man who discovered my extraordinary talent for who he really was - an exploiter.

I took to athletics when I was eight. I was handpicked by my coach at a local stadium, where I used to play every evening. I went very quickly from being just another kid at the camp to champion, winning at the school, inter-school, state and national level. I loved every day, every moment of my training.

My coach was excellent at his job. He knew how to get behind his trainees and get the best out of us. But, as good a coach as he was, he was rotten off the field.

Around the time I was 13 or 14, I developed an aversion towards the sport. Every day I would see a friend, who was also in the camp, being physically exploited by our coach. It took a while for all of it to register. Then it got to a point where it was hard to ignore. I struggled to sleep at night. About a year later, my friend quit the camp, obviously because she couldn't take it any longer.

I was next in line. My friend was a top athlete and I was the next best in the camp. So, all that attention was transferred to me. The pressure was on me on-and-off the field. Everything was leading towards the situation I saw my friend in not so long ago.

The whole experience was crippling. It left me drained. I had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Even when I wasn't training, I was haunted by those thoughts and fears. It got to a point where I couldn't be alone with my coach any longer. My playground had become a living nightmare.

One morning, I decided to walk out of the camp. I was 16 then, it was a few days after I won a silver in the Senior Nationals. At first, my parents were shocked, eventually they supported my decision. They had a vague idea of what was happening in the camp. Only they didn't know that their daughter too was being exploited.

My decision to walk out irked my coach. Until then, athletics was my existence and the camp was my world. The campers were my friends and family. Once I quit, the others were asked to break ties with me. And just like that, my world was taken away from me. I tried working in new environments, with different coaches, I even took a long break and came back. My body was willing, but my spirit was punctured.

My love for sport is the strongest love I've known or probably will ever know in my life. The two words that constantly keep coming to my mind is 'What if... ?' I know the answer: I would have been one of the best athletes this country has produced and one of the best in the world. I always start reading the newspaper from the back page. Every time I read the names of the girls I once beat still competing and winning, it kills me. It's a reminder of where I should've been.

The body heals, but there's no cure for a broken spirit. People in power should know that there are certain lines that cannot be crossed. I paid with my dream. No other girl should be made to do that.

(Names and specifics have been withheld on request)

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