As dawn breaks, a trail of children trickle into a makeshift running track juxtaposed against the backdrop of concrete residential structures. Leading the platoon, 19-year-old N. Vinod vigilantly inspects the line formation. Spreading over the field, the line pattern gradually disseminates into a circular contour. Signalling a call for warm-up exercises, Vinod positions himself within the circle, instructing, "Start, hand rotation."
Assiduously following instructions, the group of aspiring athletes commence their first drill of the two-hour workout session. For Vinod, a state-level runner, athletics was not a future he remotely envisaged. Growing up struggling to survive on the meagre earnings of his father, all that he had to hold on to was his school books, giving him glimpses of a vibrant, gargantuan world full of boundless opportunities. But a family tragedy ripped the luminous hope of acquiring an education from his hands.
At the age of 13, I had to take charge, as I was the oldest among my siblings... My day started at 6am and ended at 5:30pm.
"My father was an auto driver solely supporting a family of five. But we were taught to be content with what we had. I was happy at least I got to go to school unlike many others. The day my father succumbed to his prolonged battle with asthma altered our lives forever. At the age of 13, I had to step up and take charge, as I was the oldest among my siblings," he says.
Trading his books for a job of distributing newspapers, Vinod shouldered the responsibility of being the bread-winner. Despite struggling to cope with his father's death, a determined Vinod accepted a complete disruption in his daily schedule and diligently reported to work for two years, spurred on by desire to safeguard his siblings' future.
"My day started at 6am and ended at 5:30pm. I had to keep my feelings aside and focus on the job. The money I earned was used to bring food in the house," he says.
After being constantly counselled by World Vision staff, his mother, Rupli decided to prioritize Vinod's education and painstakingly went door-to-door hoping someone would give her work. After getting a job as a sweeper for a monthly income of around ₹7000, Vinod's mother could rescue him from child labour.
"World Vision staff came and counselled us about the importance of sending children to school. Education equips children to have a better life and without it they are crippled. I am uneducated and didn't want the same for Vinod. Fortunately I got a job, and now my son won't be deprived of an education," says 41-year-old Rupli.
Two years after dropping out, Vinod went back to school. Though he was glad, the journey was not as smooth as Vinod had hoped.
"Since my old school refused to take me in I applied to a new one. The first few weeks I found it difficult to adjust. My confidence level was low, but I was grateful that I didn't have to work long hours anymore. I felt liberated. Work had taken away my privilege of being a child. I gradually started feeling accepted in the system after I made friends at school," he says.
I desperately needed guidance, grooming and coaching to have a chance as a runner. My economic background kept me from having access to essential resources...
With a sense of normalcy restored, like any other teenager, Vinod dared to dream big. He explored ways to get trained in cricket. However, his aspiration was met with disappointment.
"Cricket requires a lot of investment in terms of equipment and gear. So my friend suggested I try out hockey which required much less. One day after school, I along with my friends decided to go to the stadium and try it out. This is where district coach Sai Reddy spotted me, but for a completely different reason," says Vinod.
Impressed by Vinod's fast-paced running and sheer stamina on the field, the district coach deemed him eligible to participate in track and field events. A novice in the sport, Vinod was far from being ready to contest in district- and state-level tournaments.
"I desperately needed guidance, grooming and coaching to have a chance as a runner. My economic background kept me from having access to essential resources," says Vinod.
World Vision intervened and provided a coach from Sports Academy, which trains underprivileged kids such as Vinod. To further fuel their spark for sport, World Vision provides the children with basic gear like running shoes and outfits along with practicing equipment.
Looking at his watch, Vinod knows it's time to focus on an individual child. Instructing the other children in the group to perform a common drill, Vinod calls V. Sai Tarun and Nitin Nyak, two aspiring sprinters, to the track side of the field.
Giving them a few tips to improve their performance, Vinod says, "Apart from speed focus on your running stride. What will be your hand and leg movements? Position yourselves. Let us concentrate on improving your running technique. It is a lot of hard work. Are you ready to give it your best?"
Nodding their heads in agreement the boys brace themselves to go the extra mile.
Performing the start stance, Vinod positions himself on the track and the two boys follow suit.
All I thought about was when would I reach the finishing line and then the adrenalin rush kicked in. I just let go and ran.
Reminiscing about his first state level tournament Vinod says, "Months of training prepares you for that one moment when you are on the running track in the stadium. The feeling is electric. I wish my father was there to see me. He would have been proud. When the race began I was focused on the finish line. I told myself that at no moment could I ever give up. All I thought about was when would I reach the finishing line and then the adrenalin rush kicked in. I just let go and ran."
Apart from the many medals he has collected over a short span of time in the sport, N. Vinod's most prized possession is the gold medal he won at a state-level tournament in the 800m track event.
Vinod is also the first in his family to finish school and enter college. Despite all the financial challenges he has faced, Vinod's attitude remains positive and he hopes to carve out a career in sports.
"Sports disciplines you. It equips you to face extreme challenges and channelizes your energy in the right direction. The sports quota helps get benefits such as access to good educational institutions, hostels and government jobs. But there are challenges as well. Parents of children from low-income background have to be counselled about the benefits of taking up sports. Secondly, they need a coach to prepare them for district and state tournaments. This is followed by providing training equipment, kits and a strict nutrient-rich diet to build their capacity. Some children run barefoot because they don't have proper running shoes; that's how much they love the sport. Funding the travel costs for participating in such tournaments is often a deterrent too. One of the reasons why I was able to reach state level was because I had the support and encouragement from World Vision," says Vinod.
Sport is a powerful social tool that influences the physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development of children. It fosters active citizenship and social inclusion.
Vinod aspires to represent his state, Telangana, at the national level and someday represent India in the international arena. He has the skills, he has the zeal, and now it's a question of finding adequate funding for his sports journey. At the end of the two-hour workout, Vinod spells out certain guidelines before dispersing the children.
"Sport is a powerful social tool that influences the physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development of children. It fosters active citizenship and social inclusion. It is a good entry-point for the promotion of skill-based education and healthy lifestyles, including the values of physical fitness and proper nutrition. Sports enhances child development and learning and encourages better academic performance," says Thabitha Vani M, Program Manager- Strategic Alliance & DME. "World Vision started the intervention to support the interest of the children in Banjara Colony, a slum in Hyderabad. Most of these children are from tribal and low-income families. We approached the Sports Academy and requested them to send a coach. We also had to counsel parents to encourage their children and release them to participate in tournaments. Presently, 45 children are being supported through the sports intervention. These children are mainly interested in athletics," she adds.
Picture and story by Annila Harris, World Vision India