On Tuesday morning, Akshdeep Singh of Punjab rewrote his national record in the 20Km race walk. He clocked one hour, 19 minutes and 38 seconds to better his previous mark of 1:19.55. Akshdeep had already qualified for the Paris Olympics at last year’s National Open Race Walk Championships in Ranchi.
Tuesday, however, was a special day for Indian race walkers. Three more walkers met the qualifying standard for this year’s Olympics during the 11th National Open Race Walking Championship. Uttarakhand’s Suraj Panwar (1:19:44s) Tamil Nadu’s Servin Sebastian (1:20:03s) and Punjab’s Arshpreet Singh (1:20:04s) were also faster than the qualifying mark of 1:20:10s.
At the finish line Suraj hugged Akshdeep before the group had a long chat.
“Each one of us feels the joy in each other’s success and to see Suraj, Servin and Arshpreet achieving the Paris Olympics standard here today motivates me too. 20 Km race walk is a tactical event and I am glad that I was right with my tactics today to better my national record mark,” Akshdeep said.
In all six race walkers have met the qualifying standard for the Paris Olympics. Vikash Singh and Paramjeet Malik too made themselves eligible to participate in the Olympics at the All Japan Race Walking Championship in 2023.
Tuesday winner Akshdeep is a native of Kanhe Ka village. The son of a farmer, Akshdeep started running 800 metre races after seeing youngsters in his village train for army recruitment rallies.
A chance visit to Patiala led him to train under Gurdev Singh, coach of London Olympics 10th-place finisher KT Irfan, and the subsequent years would see him becoming the junior national record holder. After achieving the Paris qualification standard in Ranchi last year, he followed it up with a 12th place in Asian Championships in Japan. But he finished 47th in the World Championships in Budapest. At the Worlds, Akshdeep suffered an injury to his right knee, which also meant that he had to miss the Hangzhou Asian Games. “I was in fine form and was expecting a fine season before the knee injury. At the Asian games, the gold medal timing was one minute and 23 seconds, a mark which I could have achieved. Apart from the medal, I also missed out on the prize money. It’s a huge amount for any budding athlete,” Akshdeep said.
Second place finisher Suraj, a Dehradun native, was just six months old when his father, a forest guard, died during a shootout with the mafia. Suraj, the youngest of three siblings, started off with long distance races. In 2018, Suraj won a silver medal in the men’s 5,000m race walk in the Youth Olympics in Argentina. When he progressed to the senior level, he won a silver at the National Games in 2022 and then finished atop the podium in the next edition in Goa.
“It took me some time to adjust from 5000m and 10,000m junior events to 20km race walk. I had to work on my endurance as well as speed and making it to the national camp was a big thing in my career. I did not have to worry about training expenses,” Suraj said.
While Selvin and Arshpreet are army men and train in Pune, the other four are part of the national camp. Only the best three — based on form — will make the cut for the Paris Olympics. At the national camp they are coached by foreign coach Tatiana Sibileva.
Sibileva has been focusing on ensuring that the walkers improve their technique. With the walkers required to have one foot in contact with ground at all times while the supporting leg should be straight and not bent.
There have been instances when even world’s top ranked walkers are disqualified. “At last year’s world championship in Hungary, Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Massimo Stano was disqualified. So even top athletes can falter. But then we have to get our technique as foolproof as we can. Tatiana has been focusing on right hip and arm movements of each one of us apart from sand and track training to make the right balance,” Akshdeep said. Suraj too weighs in on the matter. “Tatiana coach has been specific with our training and sometimes we also work on the treadmill to understand where we are making the fault. We are constantly trying to improve.”