Behind gold medal at Junior World Championship, lifter Harshada’s story of grit & a 50-kg rice sack

HARSHADA GARUD recalls the buzz that day when as a 12-year-old, she casually walked up to a 50-kg rice sack, lifted it on her back and coolly set it down, dusting off her palms, ready for the next one. She was in Class 8, and had seen her father struggling to lug the sacks into their house in Wadgaon village.

“I didn’t think much of it then,” she says. Six years on, Harshada has become the first Indian to win a weightlifting gold in the Junior World Championship.

On Monday, the 18-year-old from Maval taluka in Pune maxed her snatch effort (70 kg) for an overall winning lift of 153 kg in the 49-kg category to pip Turkey’s Bektas Kansu (150 kg) in Heraklion, Greece. “I was sure of a medal, but gold is the real thing,” she says.

Harshada was encouraged to take up weightlifting by her father and his maternal uncle, both of whom nurtured dreams of competing internationally but never could.

Wadgaon is a dot on the map outside Pune city, recently upgraded to a nagar panchayat. But it is also one of Maharashtra’s weightlifting hubs, apart from Manmad, Sangli and Kolhapur, led by 73-year-old fitness enthusiast Biharilal Dubey who set up basic gymnasiums here in 1972.

Harshada, in fact, is named after Dubey’s daughter-in-law with whom the teenage star’s father Sharad used to train. The father remembers the celebratory procession when his training partner had won a cross-country gold.

“I was very inspired that day and decided that my first child will be named after Harshada. That’s why I was so happy when my daughter was born. And it was decided even before her birth that she will be a weightlifter who will represent India,” says Sharad, who works in the panchayat’s waterworks department.

“Thankfully, my daughter hated studies, or she would have been caught up in books. The day she lifted that 50-kg sack of rice, I pushed her into weightlifting to complete my dream,” he says.

Harshada grew up stubborn, according to her family. “There was a teacher who would tell her that she wouldn’t get the 35 per cent needed to pass. But Harshada got first class, bought some pedha, walked into that teacher’s class and said, ‘See, sir, I got first class. Don’t ever tell a student she can’t’,” her father recalls.

“The teacher kept challenging me, so I told him, ‘now eat sweet and your words’,” says Harshada, who is fondly called “Radio” because she “talks non-stop”.

“She’s so bull-headed she just won’t eat vegetables,” complains her mother, Rekha. “But once at the training camp in Patiala, she ate whatever the coach asked her to. She’ll talk non-stop outside, but not a word when in training. She’s very ambitious and focused.”

Dubey has been coaching in Wadgaon for 50 years, and would insist that girls get trained in athletics and weightlifting since 1980. The gender battles apart — truckers catcalling his cross country runners practising in shorts on roads and his gymnasium being taunted for inviting girls — Wadgaon faced another kind of sports snobbery.

Wrestlers accustomed to traditional mud routines would ridicule him for running an “artificial lokhandi taalim (iron pumping gymnasium)”. “Yes, we mostly did fitness along the Indrayani river and in the surrounding hills and in monsoon ditches. But there was a time in the 1970-80s, when iron equipment was laughed at by traditionalists,” Dubey recalls.

Harshada’s father and his uncles warmed up to lifting quickly, says Dubey. “The girl came prepared to work hard. In the early days, I used to hit all trainees with a long ruler, which I stopped now. She was known as outspoken but not once did she cry when being punished, and would stubbornly work harder,” he recalls.

Self-taught, Dubey sought out Nana Bhadale and Capt Shivram Damle, the Physical Education heads of the then top colleges of Pune, Wadia and MES, and Pune’s famous ‘Marwari Master’ Babulal Premlal Dhunwal who was known for designing training programmes. At any given point, he had 200-300 trainees.

Rama Shetty and Vaishali Khamkar were the first women from Maharashtra to win medals in weightlifting in 1985. They attracted a lot of attention after the Maharashtra leader Vasant Rao Patil, then the Rajasthan Governor, invited the state women’s team to Raj Bhavan for dinner.

Shetty and Khamkar had won using a unisex technique taught to boys and girls in Wadgaon, which inadvertently influenced the lifting style adopted by Harshada in Clean & Jerk, which had kept her restricted to silver and bronze medals all these years.

Harshada went on to adopt the Chinese Clean & Jerk technique, where the barbell is pushed while still seated, which needs outstanding back power and the ability to take intense pressure on the spine. But when she went to the national camp at Patiala, the coaches encouraged her to switch to the “Split” style, where the legs shuffle and propel the weight over the head and shoulders.

The improvement resulted in a rise from 73 kg to 83 kg in one month, and pushed her into gold medal contention. “After the Bhubaneswar junior nationals, where I realised the older technique is holding me back, I switched. It was also very hot at the nationals, so I could only get bronze. But I knew changing to the Split technique would help because the Chinese style needs a lot of strength and mostly women don’t employ it,” she says.

Patiala also improved her diet. “We put everything into her sport, but it was never enough,” says Sharad about his constant guilt of not having been able to provide his daughter with the desired nutrition and calories.

“I like chicken and pav bhaji. But you know, when you stay at home you eat all the wrong things. But at the camp I started eating right, even veggies and lots of meat. My legs got stronger,” says Harshada, who loves eating crab cooked the rural style.

The Snatch was never a problem but Clean & Jerk would always drag her down. Not anymore. See, I don’t take tension, so I’ll keep training and follow a process. But I’m stubborn. I know I want a medal from the 2028 Olympics. If I want it, I want it,” she says.

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