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A Teenager Who Cycled Her Father Across India Gets An Offer To Train For The Olympics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to India, where a coronavirus lockdown has left 100 million people out of work. Many of them had migrated to cities for jobs and now are trying to get home. NPR's Lauren Frayer has this story about a desperate father, a bicycle and his very determined teenage daughter.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Mohan Paswan drives a tuk-tuk for a living. He rents a room in a suburb of India's capital and sends money home to his wife and kids 700 miles away. But in January, Mohan got injured in a traffic accident. He needed care, so his 15-year-old daughter Jyoti quit school and moved in with him to nurse him back to health. Then the pandemic hit. Mohan couldn't get back on the road. They had $20 left, Jyoti recalled afterward in an interview with local TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JYOTI: (Through interpreter) We couldn't pay rent. We were being evicted. We were running out of food. So I said, Papa, let's go. Let's use the last of our money to buy a bicycle and pedal home.

FRAYER: But their home is on the other side of the country, and Mohan was still injured. He couldn't pedal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAN PASWAN: (Through interpreter) I said, how could we possibly go that far - the two of us on one bicycle? But she convinced me. If we stayed, we would have starved to death. We had to at least try.

FRAYER: So they did - with Mohan on the bike seat, all their belongings on the back and 15-year-old Jyoti pedaling while standing up for 700 miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JYOTI: (Through interpreter) There were so many things running through my mind. I was scared. Would we make it? My arms and legs were aching, but I got strength and courage from all the people we met along the way.

FRAYER: For the past two months, India's highways have been clogged with fellow migrants trying to get home. Some have starved to death right there. Jyoti says people gave her and her father food. They slept on the side of the road. And after a week, they rolled into their family's village. Word spread quickly. And a few days later, she got a phone call from the Cycling Federation of India. Onkar Singh is the chairman.

ONKAR SINGH: Our aim is to make her a world champion. We are looking at Olympics 2024, Olympics 2028.

FRAYER: He's invited Jyoti, once lockdown ends, to try out for the national team. He says what impressed him is not the distance she cycled - tourists in Lycra do that often, he says - it's that Jyoti cycled more than a hundred miles a day carrying another person on a rickety bike with no gears and on a pretty empty stomach.

SINGH: She's toiled so hard. And you know - and she's done a job, even a man cannot do it. So that kind of courage she has, the guts she has - so - she has to be rewarded for that.

FRAYER: It sounds like she's being rewarded already. When NPR reached Jyoti by phone in her village...

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: ...There were dozens of people at her house. A pharmaceutical company showed up with a big check. There were TV crews and politicians with flowers. India's newest celebrity athlete sounds pretty overwhelmed.

JYOTI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I'm very happy," she says. But what she's looking forward to most is going back to school.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE STATES'S "VISION TRAIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.