Sometime in the middle of 1995, with the Asian Athletics Championships around the corner, Rachita Mistry, then 23, was training on the synthetic track of Mumbai’s sea-facing Priyadarshini Park. As the games approached, work-outs were in full flow, preparation was rigorous. And then one day, Mistry inexplicably fell while training.
When she saw a doctor, she was told her blood pressure was low. She was sent home with a medical prescription. A month later during training, she fell again. This time, when they ran some tests on her, they found she was pregnant. By now it had already been more than three months.
“I wasn’t worried,” says Mistry, now 44, of the belated discovery. “I was happy but at the same time wondering whether I will be able to take care of this child or not. I wasn’t ready.” She adds again. “At the same time I was happy.” She laughs. “I thought ‘at least I won’t have to work out’”.
By the time she discovered her pregnancy, Mistry was a promising, up and coming runner. She had moved to a sports hostel at 10. She had been part of the Asian Games squad as a teen. And she had had just a single-point focus from childhood: breaking PT Usha’s national 100m record. Could this affect her career?
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‘I’m lucky at the right time I delivered my baby’
“Not a single time did I feel I shouldn’t have delivered,” she says. “In fact I always say I’m lucky at the right time I delivered my baby. After that, I started achieving better, better, better. I wanted to become a mother. I became a mother. I wanted to do all those things for my daughter, I did them.”
Many of Mistry’s biggest athletic landmarks came after childbirth. So it would appear that world No 1 Serena Williams has little to worry about.
Last week Williams, 35, winner of 23 grand slams, an Open-era record, announced she was pregnant, sparking endless admiration and several recaps of the argument for anointing her the Greatest of All Time. That she won this year’s Australian Open while she was pregnant was especially mind-bending. This week she also reclaimed the No 1 ranking. She will be sitting out the rest of the season, but has every intention of coming back post-childbirth in 2018. If her career so far has been anything to go on, more greatness awaits.
It is unusual for top-level athletes to have a baby mid-career, but it is not entirely unknown. Long distance runner Paula Radcliffe started running less than two weeks after giving birth, and won the New York marathon later that year. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill won the World Championships a year after her son was born. Kim Clijsters won three Grand Slams after returning to tennis following the birth of her daughter.
Breaking her idol’s record
Though her story is less well known, Mistry had similar success. Four years after giving birth, in May 2000, she broke the 100 metre national record held by her idol, PT Usha. Mistry’s 11.38 second timing remained unbroken for 16 years until Dutee Chand set a new 11.33 seconds record in 2016 of 11.33. In a sport like sprinting, where victory and defeat are determined by wafer thin margins and athletes peak at a younger age, Mistry challenged prevailing wisdom with her terrific comeback. Sitting out after childbirth was simply not an option.
“From the beginning, my dream was to become faster than PT Usha,” she says. “My dream was to say she isn’t the only one.”
As a 10-year-old school child in Rourkela in Orissa, one line in a book she read had lodged itself in Mistry’s head. The book described Usha as an “udan pari”, conjuring up for her images of a magical, speedy fairy. “It was written clearly, no one is better at running than her,” says Mistry. “It hit me. I said it cannot be possible a human being has done something no one else can do.”
Besieged by an unholy passion to become India’s fastest woman, Mistry moved to a sports hostel in Cuttack a little after, where at the interview her only question to the coach was: Would she be able to defeat Usha?
“He laughed and said you will be able to. It was a funny question. He said yes you can. I believed it,” she says.
In 1995, Mistry got married to a fellow athlete when they met during an international event. Before that, her wedding had already been fixed with an Oriya man, and her main concern was: after marriage, would she be able to run?
‘Nothing can stop your dream’
“The first thing I thought was if I get married I would have to stop sports. And I am a tomboy and everyone will ask me to wear a sari and stay at home. This is out of question,” she says. “In Orissa if I got married I would have to do that.” But that was called off soon enough and she married Homiyar Mistry. “He told me that nothing can stop your dream, I’m always there,” she says.
Research suggests woman sprinters peak in their early twenties. One study found that the mean age for women winning Olympic gold in the 100 metre dash between 1896 and 1980 was 21.42 years. Sprinting careers can be short, and a baby can slow you down – given the time off involved and the recovery required. Yet, when Mistry’s pregnancy dovetailed with her ascendant career, it did little to stall her. In fact, most landmarks for her came after her daughter was born.
When she discovered her pregnancy three months in, naturally, Mistry had to stop all training. In March 1996, she delivered a baby girl. As she built up her training gradually after that, eventually going up to six or seven hours a day, the rewards followed. In May 1997, she became the national champion. In 1998, when her daughter was two, Mistry won an Asian Games medal. In 2000, she broke the national 100m record, won another Asian Games medal and in the same year ran at the Sydney Olympics. In all, she won 20 of her 25 international medals after childbirth.
“Physically I became very weak after my baby but mentally I became a strong lady,” she says. “Then I started my workouts again and became much stronger than normal.”
The baby and training went hand in hand. “After my baby was born, I had do everything from A to Z to look after her, to stay awake the whole night and then in the morning go for my workouts,” she says. “But I had my dream to achieve. I used to tell myself this is nothing. You have to do it because you have to achieve it. I was mentally very strong after my baby was born. Nothing could stop me.”
‘After giving birth, a lady becomes more powerful’
There is some evidence to suggest that pregnancy, in the early months, can actually improve athletic performance, through hormonal and physiological changes, and athletes have reported ways in which their bodies have been boosted. Of course, there is no way to quantify how their mental strength increases. (The presumed benefits have in the past even led to speculations of athletes being involved in “abortion doping” – or the alleged practice of becoming pregnant to reap the early physiological benefits before aborting.)
But having a baby and a top-flight athletic career isn’t just about the physical or mental challenges. It also sometimes simply boils down to logistics and scheduling. After a 40-day mandated break post-delivery, Mistry was bounding back to the tracks. “Forty days was too much for me,” she says with a laugh. “I am hyperactive; from the beginning I have been like this, I can’t sit in one place. In a short time I feel I can do many things.”
Sometimes her infant daughter, Karen, would be brought along, crawling on the side as her mother trained. In the first year after Karen came, Mistry’s husband himself took a break for a year, to support his wife’s career. The two travelled with her for meets across the country.
Juggling a baby, training and house responsibilities was as much part of the challenge as running the 100m in less than 12 seconds. “Sometimes the whole night she wouldn’t allow me to sleep [she had mild asthma]. Then in the morning I had to go for workouts, come back and make lunch,” she says. “Then again in the evening I had to go for workouts and come back to make rotis and all. Many times I felt frustration. But it was for a second. That happens. We are human.”
But if there’s one thing that Mistry is emphatic about it’s this: her child’s arrival made her a calmer, better prepared person. “After giving birth to a child a lady becomes more powerful because she has to do many things at the same time,” she says. “That teaches a person how to have patience. You can’t get angry for silly things. Your child needs you.”
Mistry retired after the Asian Games in Busan in 2002. In 2006, she had another baby, this time a boy. It wasn’t that different the second time around either, she says; she had a job to do – she runs a fitness centre – along with other responsibilities.
Mistry is pleased with everything she has achieved and the family she built alongside. “I am very happy,” she says. “I have no regrets.”