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Athletics

Avinash Sable: A story of leaping over life's hurdles

Avinash Sable, hailing from Maharashtra, defied the odds to break national records in the steeplechase for a record 10 times. Now he gears up for his 2nd Olympics.

Avinash Sable
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Avinash Sable won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2022. (Photo credit: JSW)

By

Kamakshi Deshmukh

Updated: 13 July 2024 8:14 AM GMT

How often do we get the chance to celebrate an Indian athlete for shattering the national record not just once, but ten times?

Avinash Sable, a remarkable talent from a remote village in Maharashtra, has done just that.

On Sunday, at the Paris Diamond League 2024, he broke his national record for the tenth time in the men’s 3000m steeplechase event.

With a commendable timing of 8:09.91 seconds, Sable bettered his previous best by more than a second.

Finishing sixth in the event, Sable not only became Asia's best but also demonstrated his readiness for the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris.

As he prepares to compete in his second Olympics, Sable carries with him the dreams and aspirations of millions of Indians, all eager to see him triumph on the world stage.

This, however, is just the latest chapter in the inspiring story of a young boy.

Initial hurdles

Growing up in Mandwa, a village in Maharashtra’s Beed district, known for severe drought, Sable's early life was far removed from the world of professional athletics.

Being the son of a peasant couple, he never imagined a future in the sport, let alone becoming India's best in running.

"My parents are farmers and I used to run six kilometres every day from home to school. So in a day, I used to run 12 km. I wanted to do something for my family so I joined the army," Sable said in an interview with Scroll.

After completing his 12th grade, Sable was recruited into the Indian Army and became a part of the 5 Mahar regiment.

His postings took him to extreme climates, from the freezing temperatures of Siachen to the scorching heat of Rajasthan's deserts, where temperatures could soar up to 50 degrees Celsius.

While stationed in Lalgarh Jattan, a small cantonment in northwest Rajasthan, Sable's potential as a runner began to surface.

Encouraged by his colleagues, he joined the athletics programme and participated in the cross-country competition in 2015.

"My colleagues encouraged me to get into sports because they thought I will be good at it. So I took part in the cross-country in 2015 and continued giving good results for my regiment," he said.

Despite having no prior experience in sports running, Sable's natural talent quickly became evident.

Within a year of training, he was part of the Services team that won the team competition and finished fifth individually at the National Cross Country Championship.

However, his journey hit a roadblock in 2016 when he stopped running, gained weight, and suffered an injury.

"I weighed 76 kilograms but I continued competing and injured myself. So everyone wrote me off. Some even told me that I would never run again. I was fed up and decided to reduce my weight to show that I can do it all over again," Sable said.

Determined to prove his critics wrong, Sable brought his weight down to 59 kilograms and resumed winning medals for his regiment.

His comeback caught the attention of Amrish Kumar, the army's middle and long-distance coach, during an inter-army race in January 2017 at the RT Centre in Hyderabad.

Recognizing Sable's potential, Kumar decided to train him, marking the beginning of a new chapter in Sable's athletic career.

Sable's steady rise

His rise in the world of steeplechase began in 2017 when he finished fifth at the Federation Cup.

By September of that year, he claimed his first national title in Chennai with a timing of 8:39.81.

This victory set the stage for his historic performance in Bhubaneshwar, where he shattered the 37-year-old national record with a timing of 8:29.88, previously held by Gopal Saini.

As Sable neared this milestone, he faced scepticism.

"The steeplechase is a very tactical race. So most times, I was told it was not possible to break this record in India because there is no one who can set that kind of pace in India. So I had to set the pace for myself too," Sable said.

Despite these challenges, he continued to push his limits, however, a setback came in early 2018 when he broke his ankle during training, causing him to miss the Asian Games that year.

The challenges didn't end there. Sable struggled under the rigorous training methods of Russian coach Nikolai Snesarev, which nearly led him to give up running.

However, he reconnected with his former coach, Amrish Kumar.

Together, they focused on strength training and conditioning at high altitudes to improve his performance.

"He came to us in October, and we worked on his injury. He had little strength, moderate endurance but good speed. So for the first three months, we did not let him run fast and slowly increased the pace. Then we went to Ooty where the altitude is 2340 meters," Kumar said.

Sable's hard work paid off in 2019.

He won gold at the Grand Prix I in Patiala with a timing of 8:41.87s and broke the national record again at the Federation Cup in Patiala with a time of 8:28.94s.

In April, he secured a silver medal at the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha, marking his debut on the international stage.

Sable's defining moment came at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where he broke his national record twice.

Despite initial disqualification, an appeal by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) allowed him to compete in the finals, where he clocked 8:21.37s, securing his place in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Sable became the first Indian steeplechaser to qualify for the Olympics since Gulzara Singh Mann in 1952.

Although he narrowly missed the finals at Tokyo, he had already etched his name in Indian athletics.

Throughout his journey, Avinash Sable has remained dedicated to his dual identity as an athlete and an army havaldar.

If called upon, he is ready to don the uniform and return to Siachen embodying his spirit of patriotism.

Record-breaking performances

Sable's journey to become a prominent figure in Indian athletics is marked by groundbreaking achievements.

At the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham, Sable recorded a remarkable 8:11.20s in the men’s 3000m steeplechase, earning a silver medal.

His performance was a mere 0.05 seconds shy of Kenya’s Abraham Kibiwot, who secured gold.

This achievement was historic as Sable became the first athlete since Canada’s Graeme Vincent Fell in 1994 to break Kenya’s clean sweep on the podium, and it was also India’s first-ever steeplechase medal at the Commonwealth Games.

In 2023, Sable made a strong start by qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

An 8:11.63 run at the Silesia Diamond League allowed him to meet the men's 3000m steeplechase qualifying standard for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

However, he had a disappointing outing at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest as he failed to qualify for the final.

Sable, craving to reach the final, logged 8:22.24s to finish seventh in heat one. Only athletes finishing in the top five in the three heats were eligible to compete in the final.

He worked on his race strategy after his heartbreaking performance at the Worlds and put up an impressive show in the Asian Games.

Sable dominated the race in Hangzhou, winning the gold medal with a new Games record of 8:19.50s.

Not just steeplechase, in 2022, he shattered a 30-year-old national record in the men’s 5000m, clocking 13:25.65 at the Sound Running Track Meet in San Juan Capistrano, USA.

This broke the previous mark of 13:29.70 set by Bahadur Singh in Birmingham in 1992.

In 2023, Sable further improved his record to 13:19.30 at the Sound Running On Track Fest in LA.

At the Asian Games 2023 in Hangzhou, he secured a silver medal in the men's 5000m with a time of 13:21.09, narrowly missing the gold to Bahrain’s Birhanu Balew, who set a Games record.

Moreover, Sable's national record in the 5000m was eventually surpassed by Gulveer Singh in June 2024, with a time of 13:18.92 in Portland, USA.

Sable also holds the half marathon national record, achieved with a 1:00:30 run at the Delhi Half Marathon in 2020, making him the only Indian to complete a half marathon in under 61 minutes.

Sable's rise to prominence hasn't gone unnoticed.

In 2022, he was conferred with the prestigious Arjuna Award, India's second-highest sporting honour in recognition for his dedication and achievements.

Sponsorships and media attention followed, but Sable has remained grounded, with his focus firm, on excelling at the highest level.

As he sets his sights on Olympic glory, the entire nation stands behind him, cheering him on as he leaps over every hurdle, both literal and figurative.

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