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Women run, track gold

In what can be termed as the most auspicious day for Indian athletics in the history of the Asian Games, two of the country's best long-distance runners - Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut - came up with personal best timings and national records to boot on way to a one-two podium finish in the women's 10,000m event at the Aoti Sports Centre on Sunday. Ajai Masand reports.

other Updated: Nov 22, 2010 02:40 IST
Ajai Masand

In what can be termed as the most auspicious day for Indian athletics in the history of the Asian Games, two of the country's best long-distance runners - Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut - came up with personal best timings and national records to boot on way to a one-two podium finish in the women's 10,000m event at the Aoti Sports Centre on Sunday.

The 3000m steeplechase is one of the domains India has never done well at the international level. But Sudha Singh changed all that and more when she clocked a jaw-dropping 9 minutes 55.67 seconds, beating Chinese Jin Yuan to second in 9:55.71 and Japanese Minori Hayakari to third in 10:01.25.

Sudha, employed with the Central Railway and posted in Mumbai, played the waiting game and produced an explosive kick in the last lap to surge ahead.

She seemed well on the way to victory after clearing the final water hazard but her Chinese rival caught up with her in the final stretch before Sudha tapped into the last drop in the tank and lunged ahead to clinch gold.

The 24-year-old from Rai Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh thus became the first Indian woman to break the 10-minute barrier in steeplechase, shaving nearly 14 seconds off her national record of 10 minutes 09.56 seconds set in Kochi in the Open Nationals in May this year.

Preeja's day
Twenty-eight-year-old Preeja has been at the forefront of domestic athletics, but at the international level, she has met with little success.

However, she and compatriot Kavita ran an inspired race on Sunday in front of a packed stadium and with that broke the dominance of the Chinese and the Japanese, who have claimed all the six previous gold medals in this event at the Asian Games.

With less than 150 metres to go, Preeja took the lead for the first time in the race to overhaul the pre-race favourite Habtegebrel Eshete Shitaya of Bahrain in a time of 31:50.47.

At the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, the athlete - who represented the country at the Beijing Olympic Games, finishing 25the - had a silver medal for all her efforts.

But in Guangzhou, she clocked a personal best time of 31:50.47 to emerge an easy winner with Kavita clocking 31:51.44. Habtegebrel, despite a personal best of 31:53.27 was a distant third, while the two Japanese girls - Fukushi Kayoko and Hikari Yoshimoto - were fourth and fifth respectively.

The race began at a fast clip, controlled by well-known Japanese front-runner Fukushi , who led through the halfway mark in 16:01.17, before Habtegebrel decided she wanted to take charge.

By the nine-km mark, the event was down to two Indians, two Japanese and the favourite from Bahrain.

With 400m to go, and the crowd on its feet, it looked like Habtegebrel had made the decisive break when she stepped up the tempo. But she could not shake off the Indian challenge and, in the end, had to make for Sreedharan and then Kavita over the last 40 metres.

And as a result of the fast early pace they set, all the three medalists ultimately had the satisfaction of setting personal bests, as did four of the 11 finishers.

A tired but extremely happy Sreedharan said, "I want to become the best long-distance runner the country has produced."

On her most memorable moment, she said, "Of course winning the Asian Games gold today. But what inspired me to go the whole hog was the 2009 Chennai Marathon. That one-hour in Chennai changed my life in a big way. It was the most precious one hour of my life."

Hailing from a poor family in Village Mullakkanam in Kerala, her become an athlete, has helped alleviate poverty in the family.

"Yes, it has definitely helped. After my dad passed away when we were still young, I even thought of quitting studies. In fact, my brother stopped going to school when he was in Class VIII," she said.

For Kavita, the next most cherishing moment after the Asian Games was winning a bronze at the Commonwealth Games, the first medal by an Indian in the gruelling event.

After the dull days, finally the sun has emerged from the clouds and India's campaign is back on track. Golden run at Asiad