India's Kamalpreet Kaur qualified for the final of the women's discus throw at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday. Seema Punia, India's other entry in the event and a four-time Olympian, failed to make the cut, however.
Competing in Group B, the 25-year-old Kamalpreet managed a throw of 60.29m on her first attempt. She improved substantially on her second attempt, throwing 63.97m. On her third and final attempt, Kamalpreet threw exactly 64m, the mark required for automatic qualification to the final on August 2. In case athletes don't make that mark, the 12 best performers make the final.
Kamalpreet finished ahead of defending gold medallist Sandra Perkovic (63.75m) of Croatia and reigning world champion Yaime Perez (63.18m) of Cuba. Perkovic qualified at third and Perez at seventh. USA's Valarie Allman was the only other athlete to make the automatic qualifying mark, throwing 66.42m on her first attempt to make the final.
Hailing from Kabarwala village on the Malout-Abohar national highway in Punjab, Kamalpreet was born in a farming family.
"There is a SAI Centre at Badal near her village and we have been training there since 2014 till last year. Due to COVID, everything was shut down and she was feeling depressed (last year). She wanted to compete, especially in Olympics," Kamalpreet's coach Rakhi Tyagi told PTI.
"She was feeling restless and it's true she started playing cricket but that was not for any tournament nor for becoming a professional cricketer. She was just playing cricket at her village playgrounds," she said.
Tyagi, a Sports Authority of India coach, could not accompany Kamalpreet to Tokyo as her name was not in the long list submitted to the Olympics organisers months back, but she felt her ward can win a medal this time if she produces her best performance.
"I speak to her everyday, she was a bit nervous today as it was her first Olympics and I am also not there with her. I told her not to take any pressure and just give her best. I feel a high 66 or 67m can fetch her and the country an athletics medal." Kamalpreet, who is employed with the Railways, has been in impressive form this year.
She threw 65.06m during the Federation Cup in March to break the national record and become the first Indian woman to breach the 65m mark.
Then in June, she bettered her own national record with a throw of 66.59m during the Indian Grand Prix-4 to be at number six on the list of best throws in the world this year.
Kamalpreet, who stands at 6'1", was earlier reluctant to pursue athletics, due to the poor financial condition of her family and her mother's initial opposition but took it up after her farmer father Kuldeep Singh supported her.
Singh owns 13-acre agricultural land. Initially, Kaur was pursuing shot put, but she switched to discus throw after joining the SAI centre at Badal.
It was her sports teacher at her school in Badal who introduced her to athletics, making her compete in zonal and district level meets in 2011-12. Kamalpreet agreed but she decided she will not put additional financial burden on her father, who looked after a joint family.
She took part in the U-18 national junior championships in 2013 in discus throw and finished second. After joining the SAI centre in Badal in 2014, she became national junior champion next year.
In 2016, she won her first senior national title, claiming gold in the Open Nationals in Lucknow with a throw of 54.25m.
She kept on winning senior national titles in the next three years before suddenly exploding on the scene earlier this year, when she shifted her training base to NIS Patiala.
Before departing for Tokyo, Kamalpreet had sought advice from Commonwealth Games gold-medallist Krishna Poonia, who is India's best performer in the event at the Olympics till now.
"She asked how to go about in Olympics. Since it was her first Olympics, it seems she was a bit tense. I told her just play with a free mind, don't think about a medal, just think to do your personal best," Poonia, who finished sixth in 2012 Olympics final, said.
"She has a bright chance to win a medal. That will be the biggest moment in Indian athletics and women of the country will start taking up discus throw and athletics. I am keeping my fingers crossed," added Poonia, whose longstanding national record was broken by Kamalpreet in March.
Dronacharya awardee former discus throw coach Virender Poonia said Kaur has the necessary talent to become a top thrower in the world.
"Her physique, height, arm length and strength, all that you need for a top discus thrower is there in her. If she does her personal best in final, it is 100 per cent sure she will win an Olympic medal in Tokyo," he said.
Veteran Punia began her attempts in Group B with a foul throw. On her second attempt, she threw 60.57m, while her third attempt yielded a throw of 58.93m. Punia finished sixth in her group and 16th overall to make an early exit from her fourth Olympic Games.
Kamalpreet came into Tokyo on the back of some good form. She is the first Indian to have thrown over 65m, and holds the national record with a throw of 66.59m at the Indian Grand Prix-4 at NIS, Patiala, in June 2021. Her earlier best, and previous national record, was 65.06m, set in March 2021.
Punia, meanwhile, had returned to action only this season after winning bronze at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. The 38-year-old Haryana athlete booked her Olympics berth with a throw of 63.72m at the National Inter-State Championships in Patiala on June 29, the last day of the qualification deadline. Punia, whose personal best of 64.84m came all the way back in 2004, has never qualified for an Olympic final.
At this edition's final on Monday, Kamalpreet has a chance to become the first Indian athlete to win a track-and-field medal since Norman Pritchard in 1900. Pritchard won silver in the men's 200m and the men's 200m hurdles at the 1900 Paris Games.
(With inputs from PTI)