In March, at the Federation Cup, Dharun Ayyasamy won the 400m hurdles, setting a national record of 49.45s. His first comment on his race was: “I wasn’t expecting this.” After his silver medal-winning effort at the Asian Games on Monday, which lowered his own record to 48.96 seconds, he had a similar response. “I was actually aiming for a bronze,” the 21-year-old said before a grin appeared on his face.
“I knew there was a competitor who has one of the best timings in the world and it would be very difficult for me to outdo him. But usko toh maine chhod diya,” he said, with his typical look of disbelief in his face.
Dharun had reasons to be surprised though. His 48.96s is the first time an Indian has run below the 49s mark in the quarter mile hurdles. His silver also seemed improbable until the final stretch. He was lurking in the fourth spot till the last 50 metres, but an incredible burst in the final stages helped him pip Japanese Takatoshi Abe (49.12s) for a silver as the gold was taken home by Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba with a Games record time of 47.66s.
The race was eagerly watched back home in Tirupur by Dharun’s mother and some close relatives. “We were yelling vaada, vaada (come on) at the television. There was so much nervous excitement in the house and when he outran the Japanese, we just went crazy cheering for him,” Dharun’s mother told.
It comes as no surprise that Dharun dedicated the medal to his mother. “My father passed away when I was eight years old. My mother has made a lot of sacrifices for me. I owe her this. She is still earning just Rs 14,000 per month as a teacher,” he told reporters.
The soft-spoken athlete was initially a kho kho player and even played in state-level meets while at school. But at every sports meet, Dharun would give the 200 and 400m a shot, and as it has always been, he would surprise himself. “He never actually trained for running events. Just 10 days before an event, he would practice a bit and return with medals from the competitions,” his mother explained.
Dharun was called up for the camp when he was in his first year at college and trained under former national camp coach Mohammed Kunji. And what impressed Kunji at first glance was his incredible natural speed. He was so convinced about Dharun’s ability that he openly declared in 2015 that his then ward would soon go on to run below the 49-second mark. “He is only bound to get better from here. The main reason is that I can see a massive improvement in his hurdles technique. He called me yesterday and I told him that he has the potential to run in the 49.20-second range. It’s a proud moment for me,” coach Kunji said.
“To be honest, he’s not the best hurdler in the country right now. He makes it up with his incredible speed. That’s how he has trained. In the last 40-50 metres, he goes overdrive with ease. But now I notice that he has really worked well on his hurdling technique,” Kunji said.
Dharun has age on his side and probably many more opportunities to surprise himself. “I am declaring that by 2020 he will be running below 48s. And you will call me and tell me I was right after the Olympics,” coach Kunji predicted.