Once rejected by coaches, Amit Khatri wins 10,000m walk world silver
The race walker from Rohtak, Haryana has gone from strength to strength in the last three years, sealing India's second medal at the U20 world athletics.
Indian race walkers have been on the brink of major international success for some time now, but it still took the 17-year-old Amit Khatri, rejected by several coaches for poor stamina and strength initially, to get the breakthrough with a silver medal in the 10,000m event at the World Athletics U20 Championships in Nairobi on Saturday.
Khatri was in fact leading in the penultimate lap, with Kenya’s Heristone Wanyonyi snapping at his heels. With 600m left, Khatri drifted away to pick a bottle of water—the humidity made it difficult for the walkers—and Wanyonyi paced ahead and finished first at a personal best of 42:10.84. Khatri took silver at 42:17.94 with Spain’s Paul McGrath third at 42:26.11.
Nairobi is at an altitude of 1,795m, and the oxygen deficit in its rarified atmosphere is a further challenge for endurance athletes.
“The altitude affected me, I was having breathing problems during the race. Two, three times I went to the water point, but the bottle fell off from my hand, so I lost time there,” Khatri said.
“It was my first international race. Everything was new for me, the atmosphere, the athletes. My mind was a bit disturbed. But I wanted to return with a medal. The Kenyan had the home advantage; going into the last lap I was just thinking that I should not get disqualified for being fast,” said Khatri. The race walk event was held in the world junior championships for the first time.
India’s second medal, after the mixed 4x400m relay bronze on the first day, extended the positive trend set by Neeraj Chopra’s historic javelin gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
Khatri was a favourite going into the race as he held the season’s best time. In January, he broke the national U-20 race walk record at the Junior Federation Cup in Bhopal, clocking 40: 40.97 seconds, improving on the national record of 40:37.78 set by Akashdeep Singh in 2018. It put him in the spotlight at the world junior championships.
Khatri has been on a roll since 2018 when he claimed the U-16 5,000m race walk national record (21:17.63) and won the U-20 10,000m race in the National Open Race Walking Championship in Ranchi (40:28.00) in 2020.
All the success came only after he endured some tough times with his physique and changed cities in search for a good coach. Many refused to train him saying he was no good. His father Suresh Kumar, a head constable in BSF, inducted him into sports because he was a weak child.
“He lacked stamina. His haemoglobin count used to be low. So I used to take him out for running in the morning, whenever I was at home away from duty,” recalls Kumar, who hails from Ismaila village in Rohtak.
He then tagged along with a friend to meet race walking coach CS Rathi in Bahadurgarh in 2014. He trained on the roads in Rohtak. “Race walking just happened. The idea was to get him into any sport.”
Khatri started liking the sport and wanted to take it up seriously but his weak physique was a hindrance. “He was so determined to do something that he went to Jaipur, Patiala, Ooty and Bengaluru and trained under several coaches.”
At Ooty, he trained with senior race walkers outside of the national camp and the high-altitude training helped.
“He approached several elite coaches but they did not give an encouraging feedback. They thought with his level of stamina he won’t go beyond a point. He used to be very disturbed but continued with training; never gave up,” said race walker Gajendra Negi, who has been training along with him since 2018.
It was in 2018 that international race walker Chandan Singh took Khatri under his wings and gradually he showed improvement, then delivered quick results. “I saw his dedication. I saw that with his stamina and build he is never shy of putting effort; (with this attitude) he can go a long way. We trained at high altitude in Nainital and Mukteshwar for three months for the last three years and took care of his diet,” says Singh.
Singh, a 34-year-old Army man who has represented India at the world championships, said Khatri was a great find. “The last few months were difficult because stadiums were not open due to the pandemic but we did not give up training even for a day.” Khatri was brimming with enthusiasm at the media interaction. “Sabse pehle main apna medal dikhana chahta hoon (First of all, I want to show my medal),” he said.
“This was my dream. Neeraj Chopra also started his journey from this competition. I also wanted to make a beginning here.”
In women's 400m final, Priya Mohan ran a personal best 52.77secs but came fourth, finishing behind Kenya’s third-placed Sylvia Chelangat by 0.54 seconds. Mohan, who was part of India's 4x400m mixed relay bronze medal winning side, improved on her previous best time of 53.29 seconds she ran at the National Inter-State Athletics Championships in June.
In women’s 10,000m walk event, Baljeet Kaur finished seventh, clocking a personal best 48:58.17secs. Rohan Kamble was seventh in his 400m hurdles semi-finals, clocking 52.88secs.