"I chose the 400m because it is more difficult."
Priya Mohan doesn't like things to be easy. Having first come into the national sporting consciousness when she finished fourth in the 400m at the 2021 World Junior Championships (where she also won a mixed relay bronze), Priya is now one of India's best 400m sprinters. A claim backed by her Federation Cup gold last week.
"I like the 400m because it's more challenging than the 100m and the 200m," she says with a laugh. Universally, the 400m has always been considered one of the hardest events in track and field -- the one-lap race is a sprint, but also a test of endurance because there's no letup in the sprinting.
Priya, though, loves the endurance bit of it. Even in training, where she describes the endurance bits as the "best." "If I go on the technical part - like hurdles or single leg jumps (that work on explosiveness) -- I always get scared. I can learn it, but it takes time. But the endurance part is the easiest workout, you just have to run. I've always liked it."
YES!! ��#TeamIIS athlete Priya Mohan strikes GOLD in the Women's 400m and seals qualification for the Asian Championships. ��#Running #AsianChampionships #CraftingVictories ���� pic.twitter.com/Z7qbr0GM2e
- Inspire Institute of Sport (@IIS_Vijayanagar) May 16, 2023
She may have always liked it, but the reason she started running was her mother. And it had nothing to do with sporting glory. "My mom wanted to get free medical seat," she says with another big laugh. "She thought if I qualified for the nationals or something, I'll get a certificate. I was very good in studies so..."
A former math lecturer, Priya's mother had her career path well worked out. In fact, it was she who convinced Priya to work under a proper coach once her father (a district judge) got a transfer to Bengaluru.
"I used to play basketball and throwball in school, but when I came to Bangalore, I joined an athletics club. I always used to run with the boys, went to the local meets, state meets where I started winning. When I went to a national meet, I found [coach] Arjun [Ajay] sir. "My parents spoke to him and that's when I started training professionally."
It was then that everything changed. "Within three-four months, I cut down [quite a few] seconds. I became national champion and became an international."
Those four months, she says, is what got her properly hooked. Once that happened, she decided this was going to be her life. "I started training... I didn't listen to my mom. Even after I became international my parents wanted me to continue in studies, but I was like, 'no this is what I want to do in my life'. I know my potential, so I chose this career."
She is currently doing a BSc Mathematics course ("I won't be able to get a good ranking and all, I'm only studying because I love the subject"), but her focus is on her sprinting.
You can sense the joy of youthful rebellion when Priya talks about the decision she made -- a reminder that she's just turned 20. But she warps into a senior pro when talking about her race craft and her targets.
Take the Federation Cup gold, for instance. It was won under slightly controversial circumstances after Aishwarya Kumar Mishra (who had finished ahead of Priya) was disqualified for lane cutting. The race itself wasn't Priya's best. She knows it, though.
"The race was OK, not the race which I expected," she says. She'd had a poor start, before accelerating rapidly and catching up in the final stretch. "But it's just the start of the season."
For her the best thing that came out of the race wasn't her gold, or her breaching the qualification mark for the Asian Athletics Championships. For her it was all about the learning. "If a race goes well or not, it doesn't matter, it's all a part of learning," she says. "I know people expect a lot when you start winning, but I hear them and leave it. I don't try to put pressure on myself. I know I have to meet those expectations, but I just keep calm, focus on my training, and believe in myself. After all, it's just about executing what you've trained for."
It's the same when she talks about that fourth place at the junior Worlds. "The first 300m was good, I was in second till the 350m mark... but the finishing part was not what I expected," she says. "But it was fine, I gave my best in the race: you take those things in your mind and work hard for something better." It's a level of maturity that bodes well.
She needs plenty of that maturity right now, as she undergoes something that makes or breaks careers -- transitioning from junior to senior. "In juniors, once you achieve certain timings, it becomes very easy for you. You don't have [that much] competition. When it comes to the senior level, you just don't know how the competitors will come." The key for the transition, she knows, is "how you maintain consistency."
"Once you start gaining confidence in the senior level it's alright. The more experience you gain, the better you race," she says.
There's a lot of experience to gain. Her Fed Cup winning run was clocked at 53.40s and her personal best (set last year) is 52.37s - both ways off the national record (set by Hima Das) at 50.91s (The world record is an incredible 47.60s). But she's not fazed.
Now training at JSW's Inspire Institute of Sport (joined JSW in 2021 but went to IIS only in March this year), she's working with Cuban sprinter Anier Garcia (Olympic gold and bronze winner, 110m hurdles) to fine-tune her technique.
"The record is in my mind; it is possible for me. I don't when... but I'll surely achieve it." She also embraces India's love affair with the quarter-mile race. "India's always been about the 400m," she says. "It motivates me to achieve what PT Usha and Milkha Singh dreamt of."
There may be a long way to go for that, but the realisation of every dream requires small stepping stones. For Priya, 2023 has plenty of those lying ahead... potentially. All she needs to do now, she says, is put her head down and do what she repeatedly says she loves doing: "work hard."