The bedtime stories Harmilan Kaur Bains was told as a child were seldom fairytales. When you are the daughter of two international athletes, it is not just good genes that you inherit. Stories of the parents’ sporting careers will also dominate conversation in the house.
Mother Madhuri Saxena, 800m silver medallist at the 2002 Asian Games, and father Amandeep Bains, 1,500m medallist at the South Asian Games, couldn’t be faulted if they felt their young one would be excited by their experiences on the track.
Initially at least it only stoked defiance in Harmilan, the young girl rebelling against running and being pushed by over-enthusiastic parents to wake up before dawn to hit the track. Good at studies, any little enthusiasm she had in athletics vanished after losing to a boy in a local race.
Her mother then threw a gentle challenge. Madhuri cajoled her young daughter to run one more race, beat the boy and leave athletics as a winner. That got Harmilan interested. She trained for a year and won the race, beating the boy to whom she had lost the previous year. And she no longer wanted to quit.
That first success made the seven-year-old fall in love with athletics. With the high the past week, Harmilan, 23, announced herself as India’s latest middle-distance queen at the Open national athletics meet in Warangal, Telangana.
She broke the 19-year-old national record in 1,500m, set by Sunita Rani in the 2002 Busan Asian Games while winning gold. Harmilan’s mother was fourth in that race. Harmilan’s timing of 4:04.39 brought good cheer to Indian track and field post the Tokyo Olympics where javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s gold headlined India’s performances.
Harmilan completed a double on Saturday, winning the 800m clocking 2:03.82. Sunita Rani’s national mark in 1,500m was 4:06.03, which is still the Asian Games record.
“The sprint which helped me beat that boy when I was only seven infused interest for running in me,” Harmilan says. “I love to win all the time.”
Her mother comes from Uttar Pradesh and father is from Punjab. But Harmilan, who has grappled with frustration due to slow progress and injuries, went away to Dharamsala to train in altitude, which was also to escape her parents’ interference in her training. “Running was something my parents knew and understood, and they wanted to pass it on to me, but I wasn’t interested at all,” she recalls.
Harmilan grew as an athlete at school and then at Punjabi University. In 2019, she broke the university’s 1,500m record clocking 4:16.68. A bronze at the 2016 Asian Junior Athletics Championships and double gold in the Khelo India University Games followed. Soon, she was being spoken of as the next big thing in India’s domestic circuit. Chasing the Olympics 1,500m qualification mark (4:04.20), she won the Federation Cup and Indian Grand Prix titles but failed crack even 4:08.
The 1,500m has fascinated her while Harmilan has grown up hearing about the 2002 Asian Games. Her mother managed only fourth (4:14.78) in 1,500m, but won the 800m silver (2:04.94).
The Warangal effort is consolation after Harmilan failed to achieve the qualifying mark for the Tokyo Olympics. This despite her 800-1,500 double at the National Inter-State Championships in Patiala in June.
Madhuri, who comes from Lucknow, could not realise her Olympic dream, narrowly failing to qualify for 2004 Athens. “It was quite satisfying when Harmilan broke Sunita’s record, I wanted to do such things myself.”
She is delighted her daughter has followed in her path. “Today, I feel proud that my daughter is on the right track. For sure she will fulfill my dream of winning a medal at the Olympics.”
Harmilan is happy to chase her mother’s dream, especially in the longer distance. “I don’t know why but it’s easy for me, I love the 1,500m more. I felt so good, relieved, after breaking the record. I can run freely now,” she says.
The parental pressure has eased now, but only just.
“I used to tell her my stories of sport every night at bed time, she didn’t like them ever at that time,” Madhuri laughs.
Harmilan though hates their constant attention. “Their continuous instructions keep me under pressure, so this time I came to Warangal on my own,” Harmilan laughs. “My father chased me here too and was watching me run from the stands when I broke Sunita Rani’s record.”
Her next target is to win gold at the World University Games next year and then make a big entry into her first major competitions—the 2022 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.
“A gold medal at the World University Games with a record is my next mission, I am working hard for this. Success at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games would help me achieve my biggest goal, to qualify for the Paris Olympics. My mom missed Olympics qualifying by five microseconds. I want to realise my mother’s dream.”
Harmilan has plans beyond athletics too. “I want to travel the world, it’s my biggest dream. I want to build my own house somewhere in the world, but only after finishing my sporting career on a high (with an Olympic medal).”
For now it’s only training. “Me and my coach don’t discuss sport all day as we feel it hurts performance, we talk about it only only on the ground,” she says. “I enjoy good music, it keeps me motivated. I love Punjabi music, it has a great beat.”
Her mother wants her son also to take up athletics. “I am keen my son also makes a mark in athletics, which has given me everything in life.”
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