James Hillier, the chief coach at Odisha’s High Performance Centre for Athletics in Bhubaneswar, had planned a fortnight-long vacation with his parents in Newport, South Wales this May. The lockdown has forced him to cancel the trip and he has decided to stay put with his family in Bhubaneswar and continue to groom sprinters.
“It’s a difficult time but I’m not rushing back home anytime soon because it wouldn’t be good for my 10-month-old son. I feel safe in India,” says Hillier, a former sprint and hurdles coach with British Athletics, from Bhubaneswar.
In March, when the lockdown was enforced, the 42-year-old, who signed a three-year contract in November to groom potential sprinters in Odisha, was worried about his parents’ well-being back home. “Luckily, they are staying in the countryside where the situation is under control. The problem is mainly in big cities,” he added.
Hillier, who has rented a flat on the outskirt of Bhubaneswar, says, he “feels safe here”. The lockdown has given me the opportunity to spend more time with my family. It was a quiet birthday for me (April 3). I’m playing with my son and have made his bedroom furniture. My wife has bought some utensils from a nearby shop and is learning to cook Indian dishes. I also use the laptop to keep myself updated on athletics,” says Hillier, who took up coaching in 1998.
About his experience in Odisha, Hillier, a former international 400m hurdler, says the goal is to “improve the ecosystem in the state”. “Young athletes need good competition to improve their skills. This is only possible with the support of local coaches and the state unit,” he says.
Hillier wants to build on the success of national sprint champions and record holders in 100m, Amiya Mallick and Dutee Chand, who are from Odisha. “We are in the process of observing how young talent responds to a particular programme.”
The centre has 22 athletes, three assistant coaches, a physio and a masseur. The athletes stay and train at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium. While Hillier has identified potential sprinters in the junior category (under 18), the postponement of the domestic season has delayed the foreign expert’s plan to evaluate their progress. “It’s a big challenge to now in these unprecedented times,” he says.
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