Cutting through overwhelming cheers, she walks up to the top of the podium. A sea of applause washes over the stadium as she wraps herself with the revered tricolour flag, all while holding the priceless gold medal between her teeth in victory.
With eyes wide open, Sarita would stay awake through many nights replaying this scenario in her mind. All she wanted was a victory, a chance to make her country shine.
Born to a family of farm labourers in a remote village nestled in the hilly terrain of Dang, Gujarat, this seemed to be a far-fetched dream covered with jagged obstacles. However, while for most people, such barriers are similar to a finish line, for few people like her, it is just the beginning.
And, so nursing her big dreams, 25-year-old Sarita Gayakwad grew up amidst several challenges that only made her stronger and eventually paved the way to fulfilling her dream in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.
Express run from Dang to Jakarta
Hailing from Karadi Amba, a tribal village in Gujarat, Sarita was brought up amidst picturesque hills and valleys that were beautiful but disconnected from the rest of the world.
Her mother, Ramuben, and father, Laxman Bhai, were farm labourers who tried hard to make ends meet and provide basic education to the four children, including her.
At the time, all that young Sarita wanted was to do something substantial and make her parents proud. She would juggle her studies with household chores that included her climbing hills every single day to fetch water for the family.
Her physical strength and the attitude to push beyond limits brought her close to sports in school. She excelled in Kho Kho and went on the participate in numerous competitions, including the national games.
“In my village, we had education available in the primary schools [only] till Grade 4, which is why my parents decided to put me in a hostel in 2004. Since then, I have always been inclined towards sports. I started playing Kho Kho and made my first national appearance in the sport in 2007,” said Sarita to Timesnownews.
These wins were followed by encouragement from friends and teachers, and she slowly began to weave a bigger dream.
But even training for school sports was challenging for the emerging athlete as she could not even afford shoes at that point in time. Barefoot she would run kilometres every single day to train her body and mind to be the best version possible.
With this attitude in place, she continued to play Kho Kho till 2011, only to be steered into a new direction—athletics.
Based on the advice of coaches at the National Championships, Sarita began to push herself further, until her first opportunity arrived at the Khel Mahakumbh, a local sports championship launched by the government.
Taking everyone by storm, she won gold medals in almost five events at the competition.
“That was the first time I was rewarded in thousands—I earned Rs 25,000 for five top podium finishes. Before then, I had only earned in hundreds. My parents were not in a condition to support me in my preparations as they could hardly make ends meet by farming, but the cash prize sparked a ray of hope in me, and I made up [my] mind to not look back from there. Supporting my family and aiding them financially was always one of my priorities and athletics gave me that platform to earn enough. By 2012 I was certain that I will continue working hard and improve no matter what” she added.
Her district and state-level triumphs soon made her famous in the Gujarat sporting circuit and sensing her potential; she was advised to join the Sports Authority of Gujarat’s Center of Excellence, Nadiad. Although leaving home and her family was difficult, she knew that it was for the best.
“At the academy, I got everything I wished from, right from a nutritious diet, which I was not able to afford back home, to good coaches and proper tracks. I trained for over a year at the academy and made my national debut,” Sarita said.
After training for two years, she got a chance to enrol in the National Camp at Patiala and won her way into the selections for the Commonwealth Games in Australia.
Although she did not win any medal, the international exposure made her mentally stronger and more prepared for the next.
And finally, in the 2018 Asian Games which were held in Jakarta, she proved her mettle by winning gold in the 4×400 metre team relay.
Donning India’s colours on her shoulders, Sarita, who is also known as the Dang Express, became the first girl from Gujarat to win gold on such a platform, proving it to the world, and especially her village that with time, patience, and hard work, dreams, big or small, do come true!
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)