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New 1500m record in the bag, Harmilan Bains finds her own path, out of parents' shadow

Harmilan Bains broke Sunita Rani's record of 4.06.03 in the women's 1500m with a mark of 4.05.39 at the National Championships. AFI

Harmilan Bains wrote her name in the record books on Thursday, breaking a near two-decade long record in the women's metric mile (1500m) with a new mark of 4.05.39 at the Open National Championships in Warangal. While it's a result that marks the 23-year-old from Hoshiarpur -- undefeated since January 2020-- as the undisputed queen over the middle distance in India, the race could easily have gone the other way.

As she completed the third lap of her 1500m race, Harmilan had a big call to make. She had to choose whether to coast towards a gold medal or take a risk of gassing herself in a bid to go for the record.

At that point, she knew she was in the reckoning to erase Sunita Rani's record of 4.06.03 set at the 2002 Asian games in Busan. Ahead of the race at the Open National Championships in Warangal, Harmilan had positioned colleagues over each 100m split of the track at Warangal, so she knew exactly how much time she was making. "1 minute 5 seconds," came the shout at the start of the final lap of the race. That meant with another 300m to go, Bains needed to run the final 300m of the race in about 50 seconds in order to break the national record.

But there was another shout that came in simultaneously. "Aaram se le (take it easy)," yelled a voice from the stands - her father Amandeep Bains. Although his daughter had a sizeable lead, he wanted her to secure the gold medal, rather than take the risk of pushing too hard and gassing out on the final stretch. Just a week ago at the Punjab state championships, Harmilan had felt tightness in her legs and hadn't even competed in the 1500m race. Over the last few days she had even stopped training with her spikes to avoid aggravating the ailment. Her father Amandeep knew this, and wanted her to play safe. And it wasn't as if he didn't know what he was speaking about either. Amandeep was a former national champion over the distance, and has a medal in the same event at the South Asian Games. Harmilan's mother Madhuri - another athlete in the family -- was a silver medallist in the 800m race at the 2002 Asian Games and fourth over the 1500m in the same competition.

For a long time Harmilan has lived in the shadow of her parents. "There's always an expectation that because they have achieved so much, even I have to do the same as well," she says. She hadn't even wanted to get into athletics as a kid. "I was never asked what I wanted to do. Mujhe dhakke se daudaya gaya (I got pushed into running)," she jokes. "As a kid I was really good in studies. I thought I'd be a scientist or an engineer. But my parents kept pushing me to take up a sport," she says.

While she was good enough to win competitions at the district level, athletics was still never a priority for Harmilan until 2015 when her father sent her to stay at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Hostel in Dharamshala. "That was when I really started my career as an athlete," she says. Indifferent to the sport until then, she proved a natural and won gold over the 1500m distance at the CBSE Nationals within a few months of training. "That's what really got me hooked. If you win anything within a few months of training, you develop a real interest," she says.

Harmilan continued to be amongst the better runners in the country for the next few years - despite a knee injury that kept her out of the 2018 season -- until 2020, when she had a breakout start winning gold medals over the 800m and 1500m at the Khelo India Games.

But as the expectation on her grew, Harmilan says she was desperate to find her own path in sport. "It's not easy being the daughter of two high level athletes. On the one hand they know the challenges that I could face and they will try and guide me so I don't face the same thing. But at the same time, there is the risk that you stop thinking for yourself, because it's easy just to follow what others are telling you," she says.

What her unique background also meant was that there wasn't any real way to switch off from the sport. "Normally my coach will suggest after a really heavy practice to simply go home and relax. But in my case, it's not possible to do that because every discussion at home will end up having something to do with athletics," she says.

Harmilan in particular hated discussing training with her father. "He would ask me about my timings in training and then he'll say so you should probably run this much in competition. He was saying with the best intentions but that would put more pressure on me. I wouldn't even have started thinking about the competition but now suddenly I was. It wasn't something he was doing consciously. It was just something that athletes talk about," she says.

Over the last few months, Harmilan says this pressure had an impact on her performances. She'd come close to breaking the national record twice over the last few months - recording timings of 4.08.70 and 4.08.27 at the Federation Cup and the Indian Grand Prix in June this year. On both occasions she missed out not just on the record but also on a qualification spot for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

While she missed out on the Games, Harmilan says she wanted to end the season with at least the record. "This is my last competition of the season and I was so close to the record, I felt it would be a shame if I didn't set that mark this year," she says. "Finally I told my father, I didn't want to discuss my training with him! I'll talk to him after the race. I just wanted to focus on my race."

But while she kept him away from training, Harmilan couldn't keep him away from the spectators stand in Warangal. But even as he shouted to take the final few hundred meters slow, Harmilan had made up her mind to push for the record. "I could see in the last 20-30m as the stop clock was counting up from 4 minutes I pushed myself," she says.

After crossing the finish line, both Harmilan and her father were happy. "He was thrilled. In the end both of us want the same thing, but on the track the only person who can run is me. So I have to make my call," she says.

Her 2021 season over, Harmilan, is already looking forward to the next year. While her new national record will likely be good enough for a top of the podium finish at the 2022 Asian Games, Harmilan is looking to go even further. "I've set a new national record but I think I can push myself even further. My goal is to break the 3 minutes 55 second mark," she says.