Breaking barriers

Breaking barriers

Hurdlers AC Ashwini

As she stood basking in the glory of her second Asian Games medal, a curious English journalist had a question for Preeja Sreedharan -- what is the secret of India’s success in track and field at the 16th Asian Games?

The Games ended on Saturday and India won five gold, two silver and four bronze medals from athletics alone. Not their best-ever haul from the sport, but a far better figure than their tally four years ago in Doha, when the country’s athletes could win just one gold — from the women’s 4x400M relay.

More pertinently, this time, a clutch of gold medals had come from events where the Indians were not expected to strike — women’s 10000M and 400M hurdles, men’s 400M hurdles and women’s 3000M steeplechase — prompting the question that received a quick reply from Preeja.

“Systematic training, hard work and strong support from the government,” Preeja said, underlining what she felt were the reasons behind the impressive showing in Guangzhou.

When the Indian contingent arrived in Guangzhou, gold medals were expected from athletics but they were never a certainty, barring the women‘s 4x400 relay. Men’s triple jump and shot put, women’s 800 metres and long jump offered gold medal opportunities but for that to happen, the purveyors in those events had to come up with performances close to their best.

As it turned out, they could not, for varied reasons, but India didn’t have to return despondent, thanks to the exploits of its long-distance runners and hurdlers. Preeja and Kavita Raut had delivered the biggest surprise on the opening night of the athletics event, with gold and silver from the 10000M that really stunned athletics buffs and pundits in the continent. On the final day of the track programme, they showed it was not a fluke, lopping off big chunks from their personal best timings for silver and bronze in the 5000.

“For the last five years, we have been working very hard for this success,” said Preeja, who has been under Belarus coach Nikolai Snesarev for the better part of this period. “I haven’t even gone home for a long time now. From a runner who ran at a steady pace right through her races during her college days, Preeja has transformed herself into an athlete with a strong sprint finish that stunned the field in the 10000M, and almost brought her another gold medal in the 5000M, but for a mistimed kick.

The failure of runners from Japan — a powerhouse in long-distance running — and China also worked to India’s benefit. China, in fact, suffered several setbacks in track and field, including the one in 3000M steeplechase, where Sudha Singh snatched the gold from Jin Yuan right at the tape. The event was making its Asian Games debut and Sudha, another of Snesarev’s trainees, pulled the rug from under the feet of the Chinese.

The gold medals from hurdles were even more of a surprise. AC Ashwini, who took up the 400M hurdles only this year, had given evidence of her power with an incredible third leg in India’s 4x400 gold medal win at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games last month. In Guangzhou, she first revealed the strides she had made in the heats, slicing off more than two seconds from her previous best time. The final had a better race in store and Ashwini, at 56.15 seconds, was a comfortable winner of the gold medal.

The quarter-milers and sprinters had undergone rigorous training in Ukraine and the tall athlete with great potential had reasoned in Delhi that the training stint had helped them immensely in their rise. In Ashwini’s case, the switch to hurdles also paid dividends, with her physical structure ideally suited for the highly demanding event. The 23-year-old is only the second Indian after PT Usha to duck under 57 seconds in this event and going by her progress, she has an opportunity to break Usha’s 26-year-old national record of 55.42 seconds, set at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, where she finished fourth, missing bronze by one-hundredths of a second.

“Maybe I will work for that next year. The Asian Championships will offer a chance to go for that,” said Ashwini. Among the individual gold-winners, Joseph Abraham was the only one not improving upon his personal best. Japan’s Kenji Narisako, the defending champion, was the man Abraham had to beat and he seized his chance, running a well-judged race. At 49.96, he was slightly off his best of 49.51, set at the 2007 World Championships in Tokyo.

“A medal was important, not the time, and I have it here,” said Abraham. “I have raced with all these guys and I knew what I had to do. An ankle injury had troubled me all season but I worked towards this goal and it has paid off,” added the 29-year-old, toeing the common line of all the Indian champions in Guangzhou.

The formula for their success, indeed, is not hard to seek.

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