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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

Esow Alben-led India bag historic cycling gold

Esow, Ronaldo and Rojit dominated the 250m, steeply banked wooden track as the five-day tournament got underway at the Oderlandhalle velodrome in Frankfurt.

other-sports Updated: Aug 15, 2019 23:05 IST
Sandip Sikdar
Sandip Sikdar
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India won a historic gold medal at the Junior Track Cycling World Championships.
India won a historic gold medal at the Junior Track Cycling World Championships.(Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)
         

The Indian national anthem rang out for the first time at the award ceremony of the Junior Track Cycling World Championships as Esow Alben, L Ronaldo Singh, Y Rojit Singh and Jemsh Singh stepped on to the podium late on Wednesday evening. The Indian boys’ sprint team were making history—this was India’s first gold at a world cycling event, senior or junior.

Esow, Ronaldo and Rojit dominated the 250m, steeply banked wooden track as the five-day tournament got underway at the Oderlandhalle velodrome in Frankfurt.

They were the fastest during qualifying, clocking 45.094 seconds at an impressive average speed of 59.87km/hr. This was followed by an easy first round victory over China, where the timing dropped further to 44.764.

The final was a stunner. Australia led the first two laps, only for India to flash by at an astonishing 12.915 seconds in the final lap—the fastest lap by any team in the competition—to take gold with a total time of 44.625, yet again bettering their earlier mark.

The Indian boys make for a crack team; Ronaldo, Rojit and Jemsh come from Manipur, Esow from Nicobar. All four were also part of the team which won gold in men’s team sprint at the Asian Championships in Jakarta in January, creating a new Asian record. Ronaldo is ranked at No 4 and No 8 in junior sprint and keirin rankings. Esow, 18, is No 1 in both.

Esow, the boy wonder

Esow, the strongest of the quartet, is no stranger to making history—in 2018, he was the first Indian to win a Junior Track Cycling World Championship medal when he won a silver in keirin in Switzerland.

He followed it up with a bronze in the same event on Thursday, India’s second medal from the 2019 World Championships.

Five years ago, he was spending his time running along beaches of white sand and jumping into the clear sea at Port Blair.

Now, with a packed training and competition schedule, he barely gets time to go home.

“Whenever I am free, I try and go home for a week or two. Then I like going into the sea for a swim,” Esow, who was last home in March, says.

For someone who had not even put a foot on the Indian mainland until 2014, it has been a breathtaking journey for Esow.

“I never expected it (the laurels). When I first came to New Delhi to attend the SAI academy, I joined the national team, trained with them and kept improving. It was then I realised that yes, I could do it,” says Esow. “It is probably because of my junoon (passion). I thought I’ll do something that has never happened before.”

Sports came naturally to the strongly built Nicobarese, who has thighs the size of tree trunks.

“I was a football player, used to play in my state,” he says. Football soon gave way to athletics where he would regularly compete in long jump; and by the time he was 13, Esow had taken to rowing.

“He was also interested in boxing and water sports and had taken part in competitions,” says his mother Lelly, over the phone from Car Nicobar, the northernmost of the Nicobar Islands, where she works as a forest department employee.

In one word, Esow was a restless boy who wanted to try everything. Tired of his endless energy, Esow’s father Alben Didus decided to channelise it by putting him into a programme at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) facility in Port Blair during the summer of 2014, when Esow was 13.

“He used to trouble us a lot,” Lelly says. “So his father saw an advertisement in the newspaper about a cycling programme and decided to enrol him there. Esow’s father also used to be a cyclist.”

He found an instant source of inspiration—Deborah Herold, the Nicobari who is India’s top senior cyclist.

“Deborah’s timing in youth was very good,” says Esow. “My first target was to get the best time in youth so I wrote down her timing. When I beat that, I started setting myself new targets. Now I try to match timings achieved by top internationals.”

From not having a cycling kit to not getting a hostel in Port Blair, Esow also had his share of problems when he started out.

“The situation was very bad. I did not get a place to stay. There were no coaches (at the SAI centre in Port Blair) and I only had low quality cycles to train on. But I swam out of the troubles because of my junoon,” says Esow.

With both his parents employed on other islands of the archipelago, Esow had to fend for himself.

“I was very young. I could not even prepare my own meal and most times would train without eating,” he says.

Within six months, his performance at a national tournament drew the attention of the officials at the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), and he was selected for the national team. The 13-year-old boy shifted to New Delhi.

Another two years, and Esow was setting fire to the tracks at the national championships, winning four gold medals and setting three new junior national records.

The CFI now have a roadmap for Esow, and it targets the 2024 Olympics.

Life in the fast lane

Esow now lives in Germany as part of a training-cum-competition programme and is creating waves in Class 1 events (the top tier after the major championships) on the European circuit. He won gold in both junior sprint and keirin at the Brno Grand Prix on June 16, following it up with a keirin gold and a sprint silver at the Cottbuser SprintCup in Germany a week later.

Esow’s performances have encouraged the CFI to recommend not just him but the entire junior four-man sprint team for the sports ministry’s flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).

“TOPS is not for juniors but looking at their performances we decided to write to the sports ministry to include them in a new developmental scheme,” said CFI secretary general Onkar Singh.

Esow has some unfinished business at the Junior World Championships in Frankfurt. The sprinter missed gold by a whisker (0.017 seconds) in Aigle last year and doesn’t want to miss the chance of winning gold before progressing to the senior level. With the team sprint gold already in the bag, the focus now shifts to individual events.

But all the travel also makes Esow miss his family; he tries to call his parents before every tournament, but the remote location—his father heads the fire department at Teressa and Katchal islands—makes even that hard.

“I miss him a lot but the network here is too bad,” says Lelly. “Instead of video or audio calls, he sends us audio messages on WhatsApp. I have not spoken to him in days as he was preparing for tournaments.”

When he is done with the World Championship, Esow wants to head home for a break. He wants to feel the white sands under his feet and jump into the sea.

First Published: Aug 15, 2019 22:02 IST

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