Lalita in final of steeplechase

26-year-old smashes her own national record to qualify

Lalita in final of steeplechase

 On a bright and hot Monday morning, India’s Lalita Babar created a slice of history for her country at the Bird’s Nest.

The 26-year-old, competing in the women’s 3000M steeplechase, became the first Indian track athlete to reach the final of the World Championships in athletics, coming up with a bold performance in the first round. Lalita smashed her own national record by more than five seconds, timing 9:27.86 to finish fourth in her heat and eighth overall across three first round races.

Indian track athletes have mostly met their match in the first round or semifinal phase and as such, Lalita’s was a praiseworthy achievement. Her previous record of 9:34.13 was set when she won the Asian Championships gold medal in June at Wuhan, a timing that earned her a qualifying ticket to the Rio Olympic Games.

The Nikolai Snesarev-trainee was expected to do well here considering her progress over the last one year. She had broken Sudha Singh's national record while winning the Asian Games bronze at Incheon last year in 9:37.37, before improving it further at Wuhan.

Running in heat two along with the season's leader Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia, the Indian champion hardly looked nervous. Lalita hit the front first before others pulled level and went ahead but she remained steady in the group.

With a little over three laps remaining,Lalita again went to the front and pulled the pack through for close to 400 metres before Ghribi decided to flex her muscles.

The Tunisian surged ahead and was followed by Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany and Rosefline Chepngetich of Kenya. Relegated to fourth position, Lalita battled hard to retain that spot right till the finish to make a statement. Ghribi, the Olympic silver medallist, was the quickest among the qualifiers, timing 9:24.38.

The top three in each of the three first round races, plus the next six fastest made it through to the final and Lalita's time was good enough to take her through to the medal round on Wednesday.

After making her mark in the Indian segment of the Mumbai Marathon, she switched over to steeplechase last year and immediately began to make an impact. The bronze at Asian Games signalled her arrival on the continental stage and the Asian championship gold further enhanced her reputation. Another great opportunity beckons her now in the final.

Meanwhile, Lalita, who had also been entered in the marathon, is unlikely to compete in the road event. "We thought there would be a team event here, like the Marathon World Cup and with three athletes in fray (O P Jaisha and Sudha Singh being the other two) we could have gone for a good position there. But there is no Marathon World Cup, so we have decided to withdraw Lalita,"  said India’s deputy chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair.

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