KOCHI : When Reji Cherian brought his 11-year-old daughter Aleena Reji a brand new cycle, he had thought it would help her reach school — three kilometres away — faster. He hoped it would help her pay attention to studies as she no longer needed to walk or wait for other kinds of transport.
Little did Reji realise he was paving way for the rise of a cyclist who would one day make the country proud. Seven years down the lane, Aleena is the face of junior track cycling in the country. She accounted for the only two medals that India won in the recently finished Asian Track Cycling Championship. The 18-year-old first partnered with Shushikala Agashe to win bronze in the Team Sprint event and added another bronze in the individual 500m Time Trial.
“In Standard V, I got a bicycle as a gift. When I was in Standard VII, I attended the Kerala State Sports Council (KSSC) selection and was picked,” said Aleena, a native of Thiruvambady, 35 kms from Kozhikode.
Though Aleena cherished cycling along the slopes of Thiruvambady, she never thought she would make it a career. “I never thought of becoming a cyclist. I was interested in athletics.”
But having seen Aleena whiz past her schoolmates, Reji advised her to attend the trials, where she impressed selectors with her speed and endurance.
She was soon shifted to the KSSC centre in Thiruvananthapuram, where coach Chandran Chettiar took her under his wing. When she reached Standard X, she got a call up from SAI’s national academy in New Delhi.
Aleena’s performance in the continental event gave some respectability to India’s tally after stars like Deborah Herold drew a blank. Talking to Express before boarding a flight to participate in the Track Cycling World Cup in the US, Aleena said she needed a better cycle.
“We are now training and competing with cycles provided by the SAI. They are good, but not the best. In track cycling, the machine is as important as skill. If I get an upgraded machine, I can perform better,” she said.
Customised cycles are in vogue as racers use high-end, tailor-made machines for maximum advantage. Unfortunately, neither Aleena nor her father — a small-scale farmer — has the financial means to buy such cycles. “The government should step in. She has talent and they should support her,” Reji said.