Photo of ace Indian distance runner Sudha Singh(HT Photo)
Photo of ace Indian distance runner Sudha Singh(HT Photo)

Sudha Singh, mourning coach Snesarev, chases Tokyo berth in New Delhi marathon

  • The Belarusian coach, who mentored India’s top women distance runners to international medals, was found dead at NIS Patiala on Friday
By Avishek Roy
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 11:50 PM IST

Sudha Singh could not sleep on Friday night. The sudden death of her long-time coach Nikolai Snesarev at National Institute of Sport, Patiala earlier in the day had left her shocked. As she gears up for Sunday’s New Delhi marathon, which is a Tokyo Olympic qualifying event, Sudha’s thoughts are on the Belarusian under whom she won most of her international medals, including an Asian Games gold.

Snesarev, who came to India in 2005, transformed India’s distance running landscape, guiding many to medals in international events, especially the women runners—Preeja Sreedharan, Kavita Raut, Lalita Babar and Sudha. A stickler for discipline, veteran Snesarev brought about a change in the mindset of runners and also fought for them to get top facilities during international travel.

On Friday, he was found dead in his room at NIS, Patiala. He had returned to India on February 25 for a fresh stint with the distance runners in the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics. “I could not even meet him. He was in quarantine in Bengaluru, so I thought I would see him after the race on Sunday. Then we got this news. I was shocked,” said Sudha.

“When he first came to India we were nowhere in the international scene,” she said. “Whatever medals we have won has come under him. We improved gradually. He was a hard taskmaster but cared for the athletes. He would ensure we got business class air ticket and five-star accommodation. He would not budge until his athletes were taken care of. He used to fight for us,” said Sudha.

“I became very emotional when I heard about his death. Snesarev loved everything about India and strangely his end came in India.”

The 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games was a turning point for his wards. Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut had a gold-silver finish in 10,000m and Sudha won the 3,000m steeplechase.

“Before he took over we never used to run under 10 minutes in steeplechase. It used to be under 11min, or even 12. Slowly the timings started getting better. A month before the 2010 Asian Games, I did 10:08.52 at the Asian Championships. At the Asian Games I went under 10min (9:55.67).”

Sudha improved further, qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics after clocking 9:47.70. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Lalita Babar reached the steeplechase final. She became the first Indian to reach an Olympic track final since PT Usha did in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Atlanta Games. Babar’s 9:19.76 in the heats is still the national record.

“He changed the system and brought the focus on discipline and diet. He used to say that under him we will have to be disciplined like in Army rule. He would not tolerate even if someone was late for training by a second. It was tough but we moulded ourselves and results started coming. We’re still following the same structure,” the 34-year-old said.

It was Snesarev who made Sudha run a marathon and for the Rio Olympics she qualified both in steeplechase and marathon.

“I was like “how will I shift from steeplechase to 42km?” We thought we won't be able to finish. But he had faith in us and we were able to do it. For the Rio Olympics, I qualified in both events with good timings,” said Sudha, who was recently conferred Padma Shri.

On Sunday, Sudha’s target will be to achieve the Tokyo Olympics qualification timing of 2:29:30. Her personal best is 2:34.56 sec, achieved at the 2019 Mumbai Marathon. “I will be targetting 2:28:00,” she said.

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