W Power 2024

Jyothi Yarraji: No hurdle is high enough

The Asian Games silver medalist survived a bad phase of chronic injury, restarted at the bottom, and is now adding to her medal tally, all the while aiming to keep her time under 13 seconds

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 23, 2024 02:41:09 PM IST
Updated: Feb 23, 2024 02:54:47 PM IST

Jyothi Yarraji: No hurdle is high enoughJyothi Yarraji Image: Mexy Xavier; Directed By: Kapil Kashyap; Jewels: Viange Vintage, Drip Project; Shoes: Aldo Shoes Styled By: Zainab Shakir; Assistant Stylists: Mannat Bhalla, Samridh Gupta

Jyothi Yarraji (24)

It started with a letter that Jyothi Yarraji wrote to her elder brother explaining why she wanted to move to Hyderabad to train in athletics. “It was a three-page letter, and I thought he’d be very upset with me,” says the girl from Vizag. “But he started to laugh.” Yarraji’s parents—father a private security guard and mother a domestic help—were not too keen at first, but gave her a year to prove herself. “If I didn’t do well by then, I had to return home, they said.”

It has been nearly a decade since, but Yarraji hasn’t had to buy the return ticket. Not only is she now the country’s fastest hurdler, she has also won a silver medal at the recent Asian Games.

The only time she came perilously close to giving up was in the 2020-21 season, when she was bogged down with injuries, and the Covid-induced shutdown left her without any support to fund her physiotherapy and rehab. “I had no jobs, weighed only 49 kg and would cry every day over fears of quitting,” she says. It was around this time she received a call from James Hillier, the athletics director of the Reliance Foundation. Hillier had seen a video of Yarraji from the all-India university championships earlier and thought she was “by far the best”. After some convincing—“Tough times had planted doubts in my mind,” says Yarraji—she joined him at the high-performance centre in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar.

But her troubles were far from over. Chronic injury had left Yarraji overwhelmed, and every time Hillier would put her on a hurdles track, she’d refuse to jump over and run around it instead. “At that time, I told her that you’re right at the bottom now and the only way is up. Let’s take one day at a time and focus on continual improvement,” he says.

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In the first week, Hillier lowered the hurdle for Yarraji to gain confidence; over the next few weeks, he started to increase the height. “We worked on building her strength, fitness and, gradually, I noticed a considerable improvement in her timings. Her confidence improved and she started coming out of her shell,” says Hillier.

In the first competition that Yarraji did with Hillier as her coach, she recorded a timing of 13.79 seconds; this August, it went down by a full second—an impressive margin in sprint events—when she clocked 12.78 at the World University Games in Chengdu, 0.01 seconds short of the Olympics qualification mark.

“I want to win a medal, but the medal isn’t the target; my biggest target is to consistently time under 13 seconds,” says Yarraji, a fan of Puerto Rican hurdler and Olympic champion Jasmine Camacho-Quinn. While she's already on course on timings, Yarraji's winning the medals too: Only recently, she won the 60m hurdles gold at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championships in Tehran. 

Jyothi Yarraji: No hurdle is high enough

In 2022, at the Federation Cup in Kerala, Yarraji’s timing, beating the current national record, was disallowed on account of high wind speed. It was the second time that her timing was rejected, leaving Yarraji in tears. “The coach had then told me that the way I was performing showed I was destined for bigger things,” says Yarraji. “Today, I truly believe it. I accept setbacks and move on, because I know the future is bright.”

(This story appears in the 23 February, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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