Leaps of faith: The making of India’s jump queen Aishwarya Babu

When jumper Aishwarya Babu’s marriage talks were on about two years ago, she laid out one condition for her now-husband Nandan Kumar – that athletics would be her priority, not family. Kumar, a sports enthusiast himself, agreed immediately, despite disapproval from a lot of distant relatives and friends. “I can’t name them now or there will be a fight,” jokes Kumar.

Almost two years into the marriage, the 25-year-old, who will be competing in both the long jump and triple jump at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, feels tying the knot was one of the best decisions, personally and career-wise, that she has taken.

Aishwarya was the standout athlete at the recently-concluded Inter-State Meet in Chennai where she recorded the best long jump (6.73m) on Indian soil since 2005 and shattered a decade-old triple jump national record with a leap of 14.14m.

Aishwarya’s mother-in-law Sumanglama is her top fan. Whenever Aishwarya wins a medal, she makes sure her friends’ circle in the colony is updated. (Andrew Amsan)

Apart from the handful of spectators at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Aishwarya’s joint family in Bengaluru patiently followed her events on the shoddy live stream on the Athletics Federation of India’s YouTube channel.

“Whenever Aishwarya participates, we all sit and watch the streaming on our smart TV. Nobody moves. Everyone is a huge supporter here,” says Kumar, who works at the governor’s office in Bengaluru.

When Aishwarya won the triple jump event in Chennai, a reporter asked if her husband was an athlete too. “Not an athlete. He’s just a common man,” she replied.

In the last two years, Kumar and her in-laws have been Aishwarya’s support system as she still struggles with doubts after a career-threatening ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear she suffered back in 2018.

“To be honest, I am very lucky. My husband and in-laws are one of the main reasons I am doing well in sports. Whenever my competition approaches, I start irritating my husband with my rants. I will keep annoying him by telling him it’s hurting here and it’s hurting there. He’s the first one to receive my call after my events. He’s also my personal masseuse when I am home,” Aishwarya says with a laugh.

Kumar says he doesn’t find the “rants” annoying in any way. “I knew what I was walking into while marrying a sportsperson,” he quips.

But jokes aside, Kumar admires Aishwarya’s dedication to her art. “I never knew that the life of a sportsperson is so challenging. She leaves for training in the morning while I am asleep and is already asleep when I return from work. Even though we live under the same roof, there are days when we don’t even get to talk to each other. My respect for her only grows each day,” says Kumar.

Aishwarya’s mother-in-law Sumanglama is her top fan. Whenever Aishwarya wins a medal, she makes sure her friends’ circle in the colony is updated. “She wakes up early every morning and prepares breakfast for me. She never lets me leave for training on an empty stomach,” says Aishwarya.

Aishwarya and Kumar’s marriage seems almost destined. They grew up as neighbours near Anaikal close to the Tamil Nadu border. “Friends” back then, their paths separated after Kumar moved to Bengaluru with his brother, who is now a top cop in the city. But after almost a decade of no communication, Aishwarya’s name popped up when Kumar’s family were looking for alliances.

“My family asked her mother if they knew any girl since I was looking to get married. Her mum asked, ‘why not Aishwarya?’ My dad, who is no more, was always fond of her and predicted that she would be a top athlete one day. We both immediately said yes,” Kumar says.

Aishwarya The biggest struggle for Aishwarya so far has been the career-threatening ACL tear on her right knee in 2018 that kept her away from competition for almost a year. (Andrew Amsan)

Sprint’s loss, jump’s gain

Although Aishwarya’s foray into sports happened when she was 14, her true potential was realised only after joining Alva’s Foundation for her higher studies and sports training in Mudbidri, Karnataka. Seasoned coach Vasanth Jogi was impressed with “tiny” Aishwarya’s speed and conducted a biomotor ability test, which touches on key areas like speed, power, explosiveness and endurance. Aishwarya was training to be a sprinter till then but Jogi’s assessment was that she would fare better in long jump, despite her short height. Young Aishwarya had complete faith in coach Jogi and switched to long jump without the need for much convincing.

“Since she is not as tall as most jumpers, I designed a training regimen where we focused on her biggest strength – speed. In tests we conducted, we found that she has fast-twitching muscles. She adapted well to long jump and then we included triple jump as well,” recalled Aishwarya’s first coach.

Another pivotal moment in her career came when she was spotted by 2010 Asian Games heptathlon bronze medallist Aiyappa Pramila during a Railways trial two years ago. Pramila’s husband and coach Sri Aiyappa roped her in at his academy in Bengaluru where she currently trains. Like Aishwarya’s previous coach, Aiyappa too focused on her speed and explosiveness.

“Her two biggest traits are her speed and explosive ability. In fact, if you see her, you will ask ‘she jumps 6.73m?’ She’s half Anju’s size. She almost flies off the runway,” Aiyappa said just after Aishwarya hit 6.73m in Chennai. The jump, achieved in the heats itself, made her the second-best all-time India jumper after the legendary Anju Bobby George, who still retains the elusive national mark of 6.83m.

Career-threatening injury

The biggest struggle for Aishwarya so far has been the career-threatening ACL tear on her right knee in 2018 that kept her away from competition for almost a year. “I had to undergo surgery. I was depressed and thought my career would be over. I used to wake up crying. I lost all muscle strength on my right leg,” she says.

Aishwarya and coach Aiyappa credit senior arthroscopy surgeon Dr Madan Ballal – who operated on Aishwarya’s knee and designed her rehab program – for her return to the track. “An ACL tear can end the career of an elite athlete. But Aishwarya responded well. She was quite determined. Mindset matters a lot,” says Dr Ballal, a former team doctor for Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC.

Dr Ballal, in his assessment, found that Aishwarya possessed exceptional muscle fibre and built. “She belongs to the elite level. You can’t even compare her to any recreational athlete. You see she’s not as tall as the other jumpers but she is so light on her feet; her muscle power and balance is her strength,” explained Dr Ballal, also a bronze medallist in tennis at the 1994 National Games.

Despite the recent success on the domestic circuit, Aishwarya is not satisfied. The India season leader is at a crossroads as to whether to tweak her jump technique or put in more hours perfecting her current style. In long jump she employs the hang technique as opposed to the more modern and accepted hitch kick method – where the athletes do a cycling motion with their legs while airborne.

“Most athletes use the hitch kick method now. I tried it but haven’t been able to master it. To progress to the next level, I would have to somehow learn it, or just focus on adding more thrust to my current method. I am still discussing with my coach but I know I’ll get stuck if I don’t make changes,” says Aishwarya.

A major change in technique could mean a temporary slump in Aishwarya’s performance until she gets the hang of it. But having aced the switch from sprint to jump, and after successfully battling through a major injury, Aishwarya is used to mastering change, with her family firmly by her side.

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