Pragnya Mohan: The CA who became India's best triathlete

Pragnya made a meteoric rise to become the national champion within nine months of taking up the triathlon. Pragnya Mohan

From cycling in the wee hours of the morning to escape traffic, driving four hours to access an open water body for swims and running countless hours on roads and treadmills, Pragnya Mohan has gone the distance, quite literally, to become India's best triathlete.

Pragnya grew up a state-level swimmer, then transitioned into an ace runner and soon emerged as one of India's best cyclists. She excelled in each individual discipline but that's when the thought came about: why not combine the three?

She took to the uncharted world of triathlon in 2013 - when there was little to no awareness of the sport in India and the term "Ironman" was associated with only the Marvel Studios movie. Coached by her father Pratap Mohan, himself an avid marathoner, Pragnya made a meteoric rise to become the national champion within nine months of taking up the sport. It's a title she's held ever since.

"My triathlon journey merely started off as a fitness thing. I began running because my father and brother ran marathons and I also got hooked on to it. I was trying to get fit after graduating from school in 2012 and joined the Ahmedabad Distance Runners group. We ran regularly and engaged in cross-training once a week when we cycled," says Pragnya, who defended her South Asian Triathlon title in April this year.

The weekly cycling outings prompted her to give cycling a real shot. "I had a basic cycle back then and decided to compete in a national level 50 km cyclothon. I won the race and prize money of Rs. 1 lakh. That's how my cycling competition journey began - that was how I realised my potential in cycling."

The state cycling association pleaded with her father to get her to compete in the sport, but Pragnya had her blinders on - she only had sights on the triathlon. Pragnya won the state selections in December 2013 and the nationals the next year. "I knew I was good but did not know I was this good! That's how triathlon happened, it wasn't a very thought out process but it has given me returns very fast. There's been no looking back since."

Career move: From CA to full-time athlete

Pragnya pursued chartered accountancy since it gave very good results for the time invested. She didn't go coaching classes so that she could make more time for sports. Once she earned the 'CA' prefix, she took the plunge into triathlon. "I went into triathlon full time with an understanding that I'd dedicate myself to the sport and see where it takes me."

It was also the time when she moved abroad for training stints in order to better her craft. It was the first time she was going to train with a coach and not her father. Having her father as coach had been an interesting experience.

"It's different to work with a parent because everything comes home. If it [the training session] was hostile in the morning, then it [the mood] will be the same throughout the day. It's not the easiest, but over time we've learnt, and are still learning, to balance it out. The comfort factor is that I can share everything with him and that's amazing."

Pratap decided to don the coach's role because there were none at that time. Having run a fair few marathons himself, his strong interest in endurance sports helped the cause. "There were no triathlon coaches when she got into it. There were only separate coaches for the three disciplines and each tried to pull her in their direction. Secondly, people did not know how to balance the three. We realised we needed to plan how to balance it and make targets in each discipline and that's when I jumped in. 2013. I hunted the internet, there were not too many YouTube videos then but found some basic materials and we began to work," he chips in.

"We realised early on that Pragnya's success was due to her good genes and consistency, but also because others were not training well enough. They had the same problems she had, but we had discovered the formula. We perfected the formula between 2013 and 2017 and then she went abroad for more exposure."

Like Pratap mentioned, Pragnya's coaches weren't too enthused by the idea of her combing three sports. "I was a breaststroke swimmer when I grew up and in 2013 I told my coach to train me in freestyle since that's the style used in triathlons. I then approached a running coach and told him to coach me in road running and not track running. Lastly, I met a cycling coach and asked him to train me for a 40km cycling race.

"Each one of them said I was good at the individual sport and wanted me to train as such [not for a triathlon]. But I had made the choice that I didn't want to pursue the sports individually, I wanted to do it in a combination."

Pragnya, who in 2019 became the first triathlete to represent India in the Triathlon World Cup, feels she has a better shot here. "I have much better scope in triathlon than in individual sports at a world level. It may be easier to qualify for individual sports at the Asian level, but looking at the Olympic or world level, my chances of reaching that level are much better in the triathlon. It's a conscious choice now to not go individually."

Four-hour drive for a swim; beating the traffic

Pragnya has trained in Australia and Spain for the better part of the past two years, but training at home came with an array of challenges. For starters - the lack of open water bodies to swim in.

"I was in Melbourne for one and a half years and had access to the sea and did a lot of open water swimming there. It [swimming in the open] is a lot different from training in a pool - you have to swim in a straight line, take the shortest route possible and multiple techniques come along. However, when I am home in Ahmedabad, the nearest open water body is Porbandar (390+ km and a six hours drive) for sea swimming and the closest river, Tapi, is in Surat (260kms and a four-hour drive). I schedule my open water swims over a week so that I can carry my cycle too and run there as well. It needs proper scheduling. People think it's a mini-vacation, but I'm at work," she says with a grin.

And when she's not swimming, she has to deal with traffic on the road. It's become imperative for her to cycle well before the traffic sets in, especially since she collided with an SUV in 2015 and had a bout of partial amnesia.

"Ahmedabad has good roads but there's a problem with traffic and now the summer heat! I usually begin at 4:30 am and cycle for three hours before the peak traffic builds up. I could train outdoors in the afternoon abroad, but I cannot do that here. So cycling becomes my top priority of the day."

Pragnya has access to an indoor trainer - a treadmill for cyclists - to use during the afternoons but it doesn't account for the unexpected. Potholes and dogs, to be specific.

"We have smart trainers with elevation - you can choose a route you want to train in and it simulates all the turns and twists, but the bike handling aspects such as stopping and braking...there are no cars coming at the trainer! Those bike-specific skills cannot be practised but you can train. I prefer outdoor training, it's a lot more enjoyable and less boring."

Importance of mental strength

Pragnya has suffered five major accidents in her triathlon career, all while cycling, with two of them forcing her into surgery. She's dealt with multiple broken bones and swollen joints. Bandages and painkillers have been constant companions. She braved all of that. But the coronavirus-induced lockdown, during which she was in Australia for close to 15 months, helped her learn about the importance of mental strength.

"There were no events and there was no motivation to train during the lockdown and that's when I realized the importance of mental strength in sport. The importance was always there but that's when I noticed it. I took to meditation and listened to a lot of podcasts. It helped me shift my perspective towards sport, life and competing in general. Initially, my goal was to win. I used to go with the concept of winning tournaments but now it's about competing with myself and becoming better. Over time I have understood it's an individual sport, and can't be doing better than what I have trained for.

"It is mentally draining - at times when you have to push, you simply have to help yourself. When I say I have to run at my best speeds, it's not that I cannot physically because my training says I can, but if I am mentally distracted then I cannot. It's only after a lot of experience that I realised I need to mentally be there 100%. I've begun visualising beforehand how I want the race/session to go. Most of the time it works and helps me motivate myself much better."

Pragnya has had scarce competition domestically and quite easily made India's Commonwealth Games triathlon women's contingent, along with 17-year-old Sanjana Joshi. The triathlon was not part of the roster when New Delhi hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games due to the lack of an open water body. In fact, India has never competed in the event at the Games, where England is the most successful nation with nine medals.

Pragnya is many things - a runner, a cyclist, a swimmer, a certified chartered accountant, a TEDx speaker. Come July, she'll be hoping to also become a Commonwealth Games medallist.