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Athletics

From the scorching heat of 50°C to frosting cold of -50°C, Avinash Sable's journey to Tokyo

A look into Olympic-bound athlete Avinash Sable's journey from Beed to the Indian Army and finally to Tokyo

Avinash Sable 300m steeplechase
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Avinash Sable was extremely unlucky to miss the final of Men's 3000m Steeplechase (Source: Hindustan Times)

By

Monish Naidu

Updated: 2021-07-21T22:43:56+05:30

It is a well-known fact that our defence forces have been a constant source of promising athletes. From the legend of Milkha Singh to a well-versed Olympic medallist-turned-diplomat Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, each of these legends had their share of experiences with the armed forces. Although the situation has changed a bit in the last few years, athletes from smaller towns and villages still demonstrate their athletic prowess via the defence way.

The Indian Armed Forces in the true sense, inculcate the values of perseverance in an athlete. Proven by thousands of athletes in the past, Avinash Sable is one of the few who will carry the baton of an athlete graduating from the Indian Army into the Olympics.

Born to a family of farmers in the drought-prone Beed district of Maharashtra, Avinash had early exposure to distance running. He used to run 6 kms on his way to school every day as the village of Mandwa was devoid of any transport facility. A 6-year-old Avinash ran in the scorching heat of Beed.

"School was six kilometres away from home. There was a road but there was no public transport. So I would run or walk all the way. About 12 kms at the age of six", Avinash said to the Indian Express.

Due to frequent droughts in the district, farming for millet and wheat was not a stable income. This prompted Avinash to take up a job in Army when he turned 18. He was inducted into the 5 Mahar regiment of the Indian Army. Coming from a village where peak temperatures soared up to 45°C, Avinash's first posting was in Siachen.

"The first day in Siachen was the worst," Sable remembers. "There was snow all around me. I had not seen snow before that, and there was nothing to do apart from your duty. There was no network in the area and I was the junior. So, I did not know what to do or whom to talk to." said Avinash.

From the scorching heat of 50°C to frosting cold of - 50°C, Avinash had seen it all. It is peculiar to note that Avinash was in his early 20s already but oblivious about his athletic prowess.

It was not until 2015 that he was posted in Lalgarh Jattan in Rajasthan and his colleagues encouraged him to get into sports.

"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.

He found romance in long-distance running and continued bringing success for his regiment at Army games. While he was a swift runner, he weighed more than 76 kilograms which eventually took a toll on his ankles. He faced his first major injury in 2016 due to which he stopped running.

There was an air of negativity around Avinash. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on his injury. Some suggested he should stop running because it was impossible for him to run fast being overweight. But Avinash had the virtue of a stubborn army man.

"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 adds.

In a span of just 2-3 months, Avinash came down to weighing 59 kilograms in 2017 before which he was spotted by an Indian trainer Amrish Kumar during a cross-country run.

"We worked for eight months to bring his weight down and then slowly worked on his speed. He had strength and endurance as he is from a rural area. He was very good at cross-country and when I saw his jumps in training, we decided to move him to steeplechase," Amrish said.

Athlete Avinash Sable

This move to steeplechase proved pivotal in Avinash's career. Due to the ankle injury, Avinash had missed the flight to Jakarta for the Asiad. He continued his training under Amrish Kumar and was soon gathering eyeballs.

Once he lost weight and got into shape, Amrish decided to let Avinash join the national camp and train under Belarusian Nikolai Snesarev. While he did break the national record training under Nikolai, the tough regimes laid out by Nikolai for long-distance running did not prove fruitful for Avinash, who injured himself yet again. Hence, deciding to go back to Amrish Kumar.

"He came to us in Bengaluru... he had little strength, moderate endurance and good speed. So for the first three months, we did not let him run fast. We worked on his strength (box jumps) and slowly increased his pace. After that, we went to Ooty for altitude training.", Amrish Kumar said to the New Indian Express.

After breaking a 37-year-old national record for steeplechase under Nikolai, Avinash bettered his performance by clocking 8:28.94 at the Federation Cup in Patiala in March 2019, qualifying for Asian and World Athletics Championships in the process. Also, becoming the first Indian male steeplechaser to qualify for the World Championships since 1991.

Although Avinash was a champion at the national level already, the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships was his first international assignment. Nervy times for the 24-year-old.

"I was running for the first time against these runners. When you are familiar with your competition, you can draw confidence from knowing their pace of running, their tactics and their capacity. This was a whole new experience for me," he said while speaking to the Firstpost.

Amrish Kumar put immense faith and laid out a definitive plan for Avinash to execute. He continued stressing the fact that he need not do anything different. "What brought you to Doha, will take you to Tokyo" was the mantra that Amrish Kumar preached Avinash.

Avinash Sable with coach Amrish Kumar

The lineup for the final was tough. Hossein Keihani (Iran), Yaser Bagharab (Qatar), Kazuya Shiojiri (Japan) and John Kibet Koech (Bahrain) constituted a star-studded Asian lineup, top-four finishers from the Asian Games 2018, for which Avinash missed out.

Avinash was running a decent 4th with just 150 metres to go in the race. The coach Amrish Kumar had not given up a podium dream. When Avinash approached the final water jump, Amrish Kumar screamed "Leap over the water if you have to." Avinash obliged, overtaking 2 runners in the process and claiming a precious silver medal on his international debut.

Needless to say, Avinash gathered eyeballs at the World Championships too. Qualifying for the final again, Avinash shattered the national record yet again, by clocking an incredible 8:21.36, booking his ticket to Tokyo in the process.

When athletics gathered pace after the restrictions were eased out, Avinash was in the news once again for rewriting the national record. This time, a remarkable 8:20.20 at the Federation Cup in 2021. Avinash enters the Olympics with a lot of promise behind him. A record that stood for 37 years, this guy made merry by breaking and bettering the record 5 times in the last 3 years.

While Avinash still needs to find a lot of improvement, there is no dearth of resilience. His extraordinary willpower and a never-say-die attitude have brought him from Beed to Tokyo. A spirited army man, it remains to be seen if he can emulate Milkha Singh and bring laurels to our nation.

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