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Living in a world where most dreams crash before they can take flight, the journey of Mohamed Azarudeen sketches a trajectory that has vaulted him to the place he always aspired to be in! Nearly a year back when this 24-year-old athlete turned coach had spoken to The Bridge about his potent dreams of opening his own Academy and promoting home-grown talent in athletics, little did he know that success would come knocking on his door so soon. Azarudeen with AFI President Adille Sumariwalla Exhilarated at how brilliant the last two years have been for him, Mohamed Azarudeen, who is now the youngest coach in the field of athletics in the country is a torchbearer for the future generation of athletes.
Partnering with SreekiranHailing from the blue-mist shrouded region of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, Azarudeen has been dedicated in his goal for forwarding the position of India on the tracks. Scouting for a 'big break' in the January of 2017, Azarudeen spotted teen sensation Sreekiran Nandakumar, who he inspired and took under his wing. Sreekiran and Azarudeen struck an instant bond, and the 16-year-old from the Southern hills stunned the country by winning gold at the Youth Olympics Qualifications Meet at Bangkok, clocking the win in 1:50:93 seconds. Sreekiran & Azarudeen Speaking to The Bridge and reflecting on his journey so far and the coming first anniversary of the Aspire Academy which he ably runs amidst the scenic landscape of Coonoor, the youngest coach of Indian athletics inspired us with his words.
"The Academy was started after the Youth Olympics qualification meet and Sreekiran Nandakumar's gold medal win," informed Azarudeen. Since then he proudly claimed, "We have produced two-three national athletes over the last year and State Champions."
The journey from athlete to coachThere was a major pull at the Aspire Academy right after this sensational win by his star pupil, and currently, Azarudeen is working hard with 15 talented athletes. A year back, Azarudeen had told The Bridge that he wanted the cloudy fog to lift from the Nilgiris and reveal itself wholly and a year later, the dream is alive and burning. Azarudeen, himself has been an athlete first and a coach later. He tells us, "It was in late 2009 that I started my career when I was in my ninth standard, as a professional athlete." He was coached by Mr Jaychandran, who was to become a very key figure in his life. A silver medalist at the State Junior Championships in 2011 and a medalist at the 2012 University Games, Azarudeen has been to several national level tournaments and won several accolades before injury tolled the bell to bring his career to an end. The year 2016 was exceptionally hard for Azarudeen. "I got injured in my knee in 2016 due to all the hard training, and since I come from a financially weak background it was difficult for me to get back on the tracks full-fledged again," he explains. However, the feisty coach made sure that he turned this obstacle into a major boon. Azarudeen with a group of young athletes Instead of brooding over his stunted career, Azarudeen refocused, "Injury made me sit back and think about the coaching facilities in India. Back then, I had met and worked with middle-distance coach Kunhi Mohammed who also trained Jinson Johnson," which matured into a turning point in his career.
Jinson Johnson met Azarudeen, and yet again, the army man casually asked the injured athlete if he would like to assist him in his training for the Olympic trials. Azarudeen governs himself by the philosophy of, "If I'm not able to play for the country, then I must ensure somebody else does. Jinson was playing for the country. My assistance will always be there for the nation," as he readily embarked on a 6-month long training program with Johnson. His interest in coaching piqued from this activity as he helped out Jinson and Azarudeen's coach, Jayachandran also explained how the world of coaching works to him. Azarudeen says, "I was an assistant coach for Jinson Johnson during the 2016 Olympics qualification and that time I started learning about coaching. What it's like to be a coach...the gap between junior and elite athletes and how to train them. I researched a lot and looked out for potential athletes," he remarked. Azarudeen with Jinson Johnson The final inspiration for Azarudeen came when Jinson broke the national records when he qualified for the Olympics, clocking a timing of 145.98 seconds in the trials. "I was very happy when that happened. This motivated me to get into coaching. I should give back to the sport what it has given to me, I decided," he tells us.
"It was in 2016 that I met Jinson. Currently, he holds the national record for 800m and 1500m. His coach, Kunhi Mohammed was away in France, and Jinson had come down here for high-altitude training before the Olympics qualifications meet which was to be held in Bangalore," Azarudeen categorically explained.
A go-getter attitudeThere were a lot of challenges that had come his way, but he always had an "I can do it!" attitude from the get-go. However, being a coach, this young is not an easy task, and people often tend to criticize it. Azarudeen reflects on that and says, "I started coaching at a very early age. I was just 22. Many people would wonder how I do this. They would say a lot of things. But I always ignored it." To put all the questions to a stop, in 2018, Azarudeen decided to take the Certification course. "I did my Level 1 U-16 coaching certification training for the international level, and I was the class topper of that batch!", he exclaimed. "I am eagerly waiting for Level 2 of Coaching Certification now. It'll be held in November," an enthusiastic Azarudeen revealed. "When you start producing medallists and seeing good performances, it feels incredibly good, and you feel responsible for the sport then," he tells us which reveals his true love for the job as a coach to budding athletes. Several questions have been raised about why senior athletes fail to perform at the international level and Azarudeen the coach offered a different perspective, "The basic thing is people don't see the performance. They only see the medals at this stage. As a coach, I look at the performance of the athlete. There is a lack of facilities here, and if an athlete gets those in and around India, then it will be very helpful in the tournaments they compete in."
India's athletics is making big stridesHowever, India has introduced a lot of new schemes, and the Khelo India initiative is the most brilliant one. Azarudeen applauds that and admits, "But right now we are stepping up, the government is doing a lot for the athletes. Hima Das is doing so well, and so is Dutee Chand." Back at this Academy in Coonoor which is helped by the Madras Regimental Centre, Wellington, Azarudeen has been able to train athletes efficiently for a year now almost. Although his Academy does not have the spick-and-span quality of high-end training centres, it boasts of a rigid training program at 3000 meters above the sea level. Specialising in middle-distance running, Azarudeen explains, "At the Aspire Academy, we have everything required for middle-distance running requirements. The high altitude helps immensely. We are focussing on my program here. Also, all the basic facilities are available here. I am an 800m and 1000m athlete coach, and I am inspired by that. My goal lies in getting achievements there." In his training centre at Coonoor, bright athletes are waiting to take on the world. There is a budding athlete Mujamil among the boys and Gowthamee among the girls whilst Vikas, Arvind and Sudhir are all male athletes with a lot of promise who are practising hard at the Aspire Academy.
Challenges for an athleteThe challenges in the field of athletics are several with the most dangerous one being that of doping. Doping had been a major issue for India during the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but Azarudeen, who feels for the cause voiced that,
In this fast-paced world where everybody is in the quest for instant results, it's difficult to explain the value of a lengthy training process. "The problem is, nowadays, the athletes are concerned with short-term performance rather than long-term performance. The awareness should be created through coaches," Azarudeen feels. He also recommends the organization of awareness camps against doping before any tournament-be it small or big, so that the information precipitates to the grassroots level too. Other than that, Azarudeen feels "There should be high-performance training centres in every State so that athletes from all over can come there and train." The journey ahead is long for the youngest coach for athletics in India, and he has no plans of stopping any time soon. "Any opportunity which comes to me, I'll want to make my country proud all the time," he urgently tells us showing his love for the nation which is rapidly becoming a strong force in the field of athletics. With his students from the Aspire Academy, Azarudeen has his eyes set on 2022. Affectionately he says, "My little champs are training for the 2022 Youth Olympics now! Next year the Junior World Championships is also there," he tells us excitedly. Azarudeen firmly believes that with the right funding and sponsorship as well as strategic training programs, any talented athlete can be elite and win the elusive medals. In a country which is slowly, reluctantly learning to turn their eye away from cricket and football and rest it briefly on athletics in the burst of Hima Das, Jinson Johnson, Dutee Chand, Gomathi Marimuthu on the international sphere, Mohamed Azarudeen cuts out an important figure for India's future. He is on the road to becoming the face behind the medals we are about to see in the coming years! The youngest coach for Indian athletics, Azarudeen, who is on a self-proclaimed mission to bring glory to India on the tracks and serve the nation in every possible way promises to be a torchbearer for budding athletic talents and aspire newer heights through his tireless dedication to the mother-of-all sports, athletics.
"A lot of awareness needs to be created. At Aspire Academy, we take all the measures required to keep doping in check. Nowadays, athletes don't trust their coaches, and they look for fast results. Training is a long process, usually. You should believe yourself. Trust the coach and follow what he says," he recommends.