Sandeep Kumar holds the national record of 3:55.59 secs in the 50km race walk .(HT Photo)
Sandeep Kumar holds the national record of 3:55.59 secs in the 50km race walk .(HT Photo)

Quelling lockdown blues, race walker trio makes Tokyo cut

  • At the National Open Race Walking Championships in Ranchi, Kumar and Goswami showed great resolve to not only book Tokyo Olympics berths, but also shatter the national records.
By Avishek Roy
PUBLISHED ON FEB 14, 2021 07:53 AM IST

For three months during the lockdown, 20km race walker Sandeep Kumar trained on paddy fields on the sliver of farm land he owns in Haryana’s Sureti Jakhar village. At home in Meerut, Priyanka Goswami, another 20km race walker, was struggling to stay in shape. Uncertainty gnawing at both, the Olympics looked a distant dream. That changed on Saturday.

At the National Open Race Walking Championships in Ranchi, Kumar and Goswami showed great resolve to not only book Tokyo Olympics berths, but also shatter the national records. Kumar clocked 1 hour 20 minutes and 16 seconds and Goswami timed 1:28:45 to win the 20km men and women’s events respectively. Kumar erased the national record 1:20:21, jointly held by KT Irfan and Devender Singh. Goswami surpassed Bhawana Jat’s mark of 1:29:54 which is awaiting ratification.

Another race walker Rahul, who finished second with a time of 1:20:26, also qualified for the Olympics. The Olympics qualification cut was 1:21:00 for men and 1:31:00 for women. Irfan and Jat having already qualified, the number of Indian race walkers in Tokyo has swelled to five.

When Kumar and Goswami returned to the national camp in Bengaluru last July, coach Gurmeet Singh had his job cut out. They had gained weight and their motivation levels had plummeted. Singh’s biggest challenge was to get them back to peak fitness and keep them ready for unscheduled events. The domestic calendar had been wiped out and the coach did not know when his wards would get another chance to qualify for Tokyo.

Then came the national event in Ranchi. “It was a do-or-die situation for race walkers,” said Singh, a former international. “After the Asian Race Walking Championships scheduled in Japan from March 21 (last year) was cancelled because of Covid-19, the target was to qualify in the very first event. It is quite possible that they won’t get any other event to qualify,” he said.

Ranchi was holding the first major athletics meet in the country and an Olympics qualifying event at that. Exactly a year ago, the race walkers had last competed in the same event but Kumar had missed the mark by 34 seconds. “I was very disappointed and immediately after that the lockdown started and Tokyo Olympics was postponed. Everything was uncertain. There was no motivation to restart preparation,” said Kumar.

“We had no choice but to pick ourselves up. I was walking in paddy fields in my village for three months, trying to remain as fit as possible,” says Kumar, 34, who competed at the Rio Olympics in the 50km race walk.

For Goswami, the dream of taking part in her first Olympics was all but gone. “I had given up hope and I went back home. It was difficult to train at home. Though our coach would constantly tell us to train,” she said.

Singh said the biggest challenge was to keep them motivated. “When they returned to training in Bengaluru, it was a fresh start. I had to work on their physical fitness and encourage them. I made them watch motivational videos. It was also important to keep them injury-free because there was no competition. We put in a lot of hard work and they responded to the challenge in tough times. That’s why they have been able to come back so well in the very first event.”

For Kumar and Goswami, it was double bonanza as they also became the first Indians to qualify for next year’s World Athletics Championships.

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