Buffalo milk and the Army: How Akshdeep race walked to Olympics berth
Race walker Akshdeep Singh was one of the first Indians from athletics to book a spot for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
As a child, young race walker Akshdeep Singh, who on Tuesday booked a surprise World Championships and 2024 Olympics berths, would drink a lot of milk from the buffaloes reared by his farmer farther who encouraged his son to take up sport to get an Indian Army job.
Hailing from Kahneke village in Barnala district of Punjab, Akshdeep became the first Indian from athletics, along with seasoned race walker Priyanka Goswami, to qualify for the Paris Olympics next year as well as for World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary in August after winning gold in 20km event of National Race Waking Championships in Ranchi.
"My father is a small farmer and my mother a home-maker. We have a small piece of land where my father does farming. When I was a child, I also used to join my father in cultivation. I would drink a lot of milk from a couple of buffaloes my father kept at our house. That gave me the strength and stamina," the 23-year-old Akshdeep told PTI after his feat.
"It was tough for my father to run the family from the meagre income he earned, take care of my studies. So, he wanted me to join the Army and for that encouraged me to do some sport," said the youngster, who is set to rub shoulders with the best in the business in the World Championships and Olympic Games.
Akshdeep clocked 1 hour 19 minutes and 55 seconds to become the first Indian race walker to time sub 1:20 in 20km event and obliterate the national record of 1:20:16, which was in the name of veteran Sandeep Kumar. The men's 20km race walk qualifying time for both the World Championships to be held in Budapest in August and 2024 Olympics is 1:20:10.
It's a dream come true for the youngster who has made it to the two showpiece global events rather in quick time after starting his career five years ago. He began competing at the senior level just three years ago and started training at the Sports Authority of India Centre in Bengaluru only in 2021.
"In 2015, I appeared for Indian Army recruitment and after that I went for trials at the Punjabi University in Patiala. I got selected and stayed there for around three years.
"There, I met Gurdev Singh sir, a famous race walk coach. He told me that he would teach race walking and I would do well in that. After that, I took part in the Khelo India Games in 2018, that is how I started my career," Akshdeep said.
"It was a lot of struggle initially but my parents supported all through. Also, race walking is not that expensive an event; food and accommodation were free at the university and Gurdev sir also helped me a lot."
His potential as a race walker came to light in 2020 during the same National Race Walking Championships in Ranchi where he clocked 1:26:12, though Akshdeep finished 12th.
"I began in the senior level in the 2020 edition of this Championships and did my personal best (1:26:12) at that time. Next year (2021), I was called up to join the camp at the SAI Centre in Bengaluru and I improved steadily from there on." Akshdeep said after clocking 1:23:14 in the last edition of the championships here in 2022 to win the silver, he was determined to clock sub 1:20 this time.
"Our foreign coach (Tatyana Sibileva) did the planning and made the strategy regarding how to go about the race and I stuck to her instructions. "So, my gold and qualifying for World Championships and Olympics was not a surprise for me as I was training for that goal. I was confident about doing it.
"Now, I will prepare well and try to give world-class performances in the Olympics and World Championships. There is still one-and-a-half years to go for the Olympics and I hope to do well there."