Behind Jyothi Yarraji’s handwritten Asian Games tribute: Late mentor who spotted her talent, taught her how to clear hurdles, gave her shoes – The Indian Express

When Jyothi Yarraji, India’s bright young hurdler, stood on the podium after winning the silver medal at the recent Asian Games in Hangzhou, at the back of the bib, which she had unpinned and held in her hand, was a handwritten message of gratitude: “Gautham, this is for you. We miss you”.
Sai Gautham, who was a national level hurdler, has a special place in Jyothi’s heart. He was the one who spotted her talent, helped her get admission in a sports hostel in Hyderabad, and hand-held her during her early days before she became a star. Her first pair of Nike shoes was gifted by him.
When Gautham died on August 31, four days after he met with a road accident in Kakinada, Jyothi lost her mentor and guide. “Actually, I wanted to win a gold for him at the Asian Games. But it was not to be. The message on the bib was my way of paying tribute to Gautham. I felt that I should dedicate the medal to him. He was always there for me… He was one of my seniors, he motivated me and inspired me in everything,” Jyothi told The Indian Express on Wednesday.
At the Asian Games earlier this month, in an evening of drama in Hangzhou, officials first disqualified Jyothi and China’s Yanni Wu for a false start. But after Jyothi and the Athletics Federation of India protested, she was allowed to run in the 100 metres hurdles final, and so was Yanni.
Yanni was disqualified after the race, and Jyothi’s bronze was upgraded to silver. China’s Yuwei Lin won the gold.
Jyothi was hailed for standing up for herself, putting her point across to officials without getting perturbed, and holding her nerve to win a medal. An emotional Jyothi shed tears on the podium as she gripped the bib with Gautham’s name on it.
“He was the first person ever to tell me that I had talent. He happened to be in my hometown (Visakhapatnam) to visit relatives. He saw me at the ground where I was training. This was in 2015, when I had just started out. He told me that there is a SAI hostel for talented athletes, and put in a word to a coach. He was my senior at the SAI hostel. He was like a parent to me,” Jyothi recalled.
She said Gautham looked out for her when she was at the hostel, motivated her, gave her training tips, advised her on her diet, and also asked her to be more social. “I was very young, I was shy and did not mingle. I didn’t have any experience, I had no idea what a sports hostel was about. He explained to me how to go about things, taught me how to run, how to clear the hurdles,” Jyothi said.
When Jyothi needed a new pair of shoes, Gautham bought them for her. “It was the first Nike shoes that I had ever owned. I had Nivia shoes, and that itself was a big thing for me. But when I told him I was feeling a little pain, he got me a pair of Nike shoes,” she said.
Gautham was overjoyed when Jyothi spoke to him on the phone after winning the gold in the 100m hurdles at the Asian Athletics Championships in Bangkok in July. “When I won the Asian Championships, he was so happy. I thanked him for everything. He had recently got married and was attending functions at that time. I called him after the competition. I told him this was my first major competition (outdoor) and wanted to share the joy with him. It was a wonderful moment for both of us,” Jyothi said.
Jyothi was in Mumbai when she got the news about Gautham’s accident. She left for Kakinada to be by his side. But she could not talk to him. “I went to see him. He was in the hospital for four days. He was one of the most important people in my life, and supported me right through my journey… He was in the ICU, there were clots in his brain… so no movement… I was there for a day. Everybody told me I should fulfil his dream. I wanted to do that at the Asian Games,” she recalled.
If it was not for the false start drama in Hangzhou, Jyothi felt she could have gone faster. “After the race, I felt that maybe I can push a little more. But I am saving up for next year, maybe. Standing on the podium, I was a little disappointed because our national anthem was not playing. But it was an emotional race for me in more ways than one, and I am glad I could win a medal at the Asian Games,” she said.
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