Pandurang Mhaskar: The untold story of Maharashtra’s Athletics pioneer

When you look through pages of history there will be many men and women in Sports that have carved an immaculate journey. Some of them have achieved feats one could only dream of. And then some that have inspired another generation to follow.  And there are some who have did both and achieved legendary status.

There is a myriad list of sportsmen and women who have done the extraordinary and the whole world were left in awe of their audacity. But then there are a rare breed of humans, that believe in creating something for others. Something that’d help other achieve greatness. They’d be happy in helping countless others to do something great. Pandurang Mhaskar was one of those rare breed of people.

Born in Beldarwadi ‘ a small village settled on a hillock in the district of Sangli, his parents were poor. Beldarwadi then had a population of less than 200. Even today the population of Beldarwadi is not more than 1500.

No schools were built at Beldarvadi during that time and like most Indian parents post freedom, he used to travel on foot for 18 kilometers to go to school at Islampur. During his schooling days he was much interested in athletics, and his then teachers in school encouraged him to participate in local tournaments. He did win a lot of local tournaments.

Pandurang used to practice on free grounds and roads bare feet or seldom with slippers. Mr. Patil, a principal in the college where Pandurang used to study not only encouraged him to follow athletics but also instilled in him the importance of laying the foundation for a sportsmen career, on how one’s body needs to get used to lifecycle of an athlete. The gravity of getting the basics, right from an early age.

His parents were farmers by choice. He didn’t want to trouble his parents for money so he started working in a restaurant during his school days. Serving, cooking and accounting were all the chores that he had to perform whilst working at this small restaurant. He used to fulfill his duties of paying income tax on behalf of the restaurant and helped others as well to learn this new system.

To advance his training further, his principal recommended him to pursue his education by joining NIS ‘ National Institute of Sports, to attain a degree in Coaching. As a disciplined boy he was, he saved up on a lot of money during his college to make sure he had enough to pursue and sustain his life while staying at Patiala. Precisely, keeping this in mind, he had saved up to Rs. 750 after paying the fees for admission, which was huge amount during the 1960’s. He graduated after a year, with still money left from his savings.

Soon after graduating he returned back to his native and was offered a job as an Athletics coach in the newly established Shivaji University.  The Vice Chancellor then, Dr. A.G Pawar also made sure there was a Department of Sports created with Pandurang playing a pivotal role. To date there are only few colleges/universities in Maharashtra that have their own Department of Sports.

Shivaji University was the one of the first universities to hire a NIS graduate as a coach. They were also the pioneers in establishing the first Department of Sports in any University in Maharashtra. With this opportunity in place, Pandurang made sure that he wasn’t to let go of this. He started off with his vision of placing a state of the art Track & Field for the University students as well as from other districts (Solapur, Sangli & Satara).

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As a coach, Pandurang had an overwhelming personality. Strict to the core with punctuality, discipline and precision as his integral values. Pandurang, as taught by his professor earlier, getting the basics and laying the foundation at the right age for an athlete is of utmost importance.

He always believed that if you teach a boy at the age of 20 the ABC’s of exercising and stretching, he will learn it but since the body is not used to this rigor, there will be limitation on the outcome.  He will end up being a good athlete but will never cross the barrier to becoming a world class one. For that you need to start at an early age.

Pandurang had introduced a funnel system to identify athletes by conducting mass camps.  He believed only through funneling a large bracket of athletes/students you’d find a good bunch of people with real talent which, you can then train them to get better and achieve distinction at world level.

He started conducting camps at various colleges at different districts such as Solapur, Sangli and Satara. The idea behind these camps was first to identify potential athletes and then provide them with a schedule, not only to students but also their coach and their parents. The schedule included the dietary discipline and exercising pattern and the recovery period, that one needs to follow to make sure they can develop further. He would explain the importance of following the schedule as it would augment the athlete and their athletic ability in the long run.

He introduced the idea to colleges of having athletics part of their curriculum. In order to make sure monetary expenses didn’t fall on either The University or students, he introduced a Gymkhana Fee subvention scheme to be paid by the students during admission. Of which, 40% of the amount would be given to the University and the other 60% to stay with the college. This would then allow the colleges with substantial amount to conduct various sports activities so the training for athletes never stop. It also gave the university a reserve cash bucket to conduct training camps.

Potential students that were identified were then brought to Shivaji University to train further. Get more technically educated. He made sure that the students were provided accommodation by the University. Boys and Girls separate.

He also made sure that all dietary discipline such as milk intake per student and protein intake as per their height and age was followed whenever the training camps were organized within University premises; without the monetary burden falling on the students.

He built a track with a football field in the middle which included a drainage system – A first of its kind in India. A template that is followed by world class facilities in Europe and America. Using percolation as the methodology, he built the track using several layers which, included stones, sugar crystals, sand and clay.

He made sure that the track had a inner and outer drainage support system so that dampness doesn’t reside for a longer period of time. He created a sand track on the outside so that athletes can use it to strengthen their lower body weight. He had accommodated required thigh and leg weights for this purpose too.

He used to nip and tuck on everything before executing in the real time, just to make sure nothing was missed. With all the amenities and convenience in place, Pandurang now wanted the athletes to attest to his philosophy.

Any athletes who were not punctual or not giving their all during the training would get an earful. It was all or nothing for him. He would undergo anything for a student, to give him/her the opportunity, but would gravely detest anyone being ill-mannered and not disciplined.

Anyone caught cutting corners and skipping sessions or event trying to flirt around was called to the chambers; would get scolding they’ve never heard. He brought in a couple of local sponsors to make sure the daily allowances of the students were received, whenever funds at the university was drying up.

The prodigies of Pandurang

One such athlete that came through the ranks was Vandana Shanbagh. He saw the potential in her and convinced her parents of her potential, something Pandurang had a great eye for.

Vandana within 2 years of her training with Pandurang, was competing at National Level with the likes of Shiny Wilson, PT Usha & Vandana Rao. Vandana used to participate in the 400m track race. She even beat PT Usha in a couple of track events. With so much of competition in this event, one could question if this was the reason that led PT Usha change events over the course of her career.

The 4 of them then formed a relay team and participated in the 1987 Asian Games in Singapore and won the Silver medal. They also participated in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul but couldn’t reach the podium. She was later honoured with the Arjuna Award for outstanding achievement in Sports.

Nanda Jadhav was a gem of find from Pandurang. She was 4’5′ tall with a shoe size of less than 3. Pandurang trained her hard because he knew she could do it. She debuted as an athlete in 1984-85 at the all-India Varsity Meet, winning a bronze medal. In 1987 she came first in the cross country race at the National Games, Pune.

She was a national record holder in the 5000m and 10,000m races. After her 10,000m win, her gender was even questioned due to hair growth on her face, but blood tests proved she had normal hormone levels. She represented Maharashtra in the ’85-86 National Games in Delhi and bagged the gold in the 1500m and 3000m category in record time. She got three golds in the Kerala National Games, and two in the Pune National Games.

She was known for always running barefoot. During the fourteen years of her sporting career she represented India over ten times. She became the first woman athlete from Maharashtra to represent the country in marathons from Warsaw in Poland, to New Zealand, Hong Kong, Belgium and France. She won the Chhatrapati Award in 1987 for her performance in the 1,000m race.

There have been several athletes that have trained by Pandurang and that have gone on to be national champions and compete at international level, but Pandurang’s objective was not only to train them and make them better, it wasn’t only to help rural kids to have an opportunity, but it was also to give them an opportunity to lead a decent life.

Yes, the ulterior motive was to win India medals and compete and international stage, but every athlete knows that they have short lived careers and life after that becomes a habit of struggle.

He wanted everyone to educate themselves and train hard so that they could bag governmental jobs under sports quota. He’d want them to lead a better life once their career is absorbed. Today most of his students are Coaches, DSO (Director of Sport Officer) and working at various governmental positions. Some are even in the army. They have in turn helped other under-privilege students to achieve more by using Pandurang’s philosophy. He was awarded the Shiv Chhatrapati Award for the Best Coach in 1991-92.

He never charged any of his students.

His selflessness is what made Pandurang a great man. Along with the technical knowledge that he had already acquired, he was a guide to all of his students and his fellows through all aspects of life. He wanted a Department of Sports in all Universities across Maharashtra and India. He was a promoter for a long time and achieved mild success with the Bombay University when they had created a cell for the Sports Division, but nothing had transpired after that.

After retirement in 2004, he established WRSF (Western Regions Sports Foundation). He initiated this foundation on the same philosophy and that is to organize camps for under-privileged students/athletes without taking any fees. He created academies for the sole purpose that students can join in at their own convenience and get the best of training and coaching for at low or no cost. Before Parkinsons consumed him, he had already installed 3 academies across Maharashtra i.e. Ambernath, Nanded and Kolhapur.

His legacy is continued by his son Ashlesh Mhaskar and few other friends. ‘We don’t want to stop this process. We feel good by doing this and if we feel good that means we’re doing good to his name’

The entire story was orated to us by Ashlesh Mhaskar.