Much was expected from the Indian men's quartet at the World Relays Championship in Yokohama. Up for grabs was a place in the World Championships in Doha which are scheduled for September - which in turn could, possibly, have got the team a ticket to Tokyo 2020.
An injury to Arokia Rajiv upset the plans of the Indians who managed to clock a disappointing 3:06.05 seconds in the heats and failed to make the finals.
At Yokohama, Kunhu Mohammed got his team off to a start with a time of 47.10 seconds while Jithu Baby - who replaced the injured Rajiv, managed a time of 46.50. KS Jeevan took a while longer and clocked 47 seconds, and the decisive leg was entrusted to Muhammad Anas whose 45.45 effort proved insufficient to ensure a satisfactory finish.
What went wrong?
"It would be unfair on my part to speak on behalf of my teammates as well about how we performed at the World Relays because one of the main runners of the team injured himself right before the matches took place."
"It was an unforeseen scenario, yet it happened. Hence it was very unfortunate as we were looking forward to judge our performances and rate ourselves on where we currently stood in comparison to other athletes who were taking part in the competition."
The above words emanated from the anchorman himself, who despite the setback hailed the camaraderie in the ranks.
"We bond really well. The success we have achieved is evidence to how well we get along. Without any harmony, a relay team can never be successful. We have always been proud of each other’s individual success as well. We guide each other too. That’s why we are really strong as a team. We never refrain from telling each other our strengths and weaknesses."
In an interaction with the The Bridge, Muhammed Anas, the champion sprinter who specializes in the 400-meters distance race relives some of the memorable moments of his career, looks ahead to what he needs to do to make it to Tokyo 2020, and pays tribute to his brave mother who continues to be a pillar of strength.
While budding female athletes in India received a massive shot in the arm after PT Usha missed the bronze by one-hundredth of a second at Los Angeles in 1984, their male counterparts had no new-age role model to look up to. The Flying Sikh, has however, continued to inspire generations of young runners who failed to break his imposing record until KM Binu came along, and did so 44 years after the mark was set in Rome 1960.
Binu's milestone, which he achieved at Athens in 2004, remained unbroken up until a Naval Sailor from Kerala sprinted his way to glory by bettering the National record twice in the space of two days at the Athletics Championships in Poland.
Muhammad Anas is only the third Indian to have qualified for the 400-meters Olympic event following in the footsteps of the legendary Milkha Singh and KM Binu.
At the Games in 2016, Anas clocked 45.95 seconds in the heats after having touched the entry standard of 45.40 in order to qualify for the event. The Indian failed to make the semifinals but making it to Rio was, by itself, a remarkable achievement for athletics in this land, as the man himself admitted when asked what his takeaways were.
"Participating in the Olympics is a completely different experience. Just to see how competitive my opponents were was enough to show me what it takes to be successful at the Olympic level. What my takeaway has been is that there isn’t any other way to win a medal at Olympics but to prepare as hard as I can! It’s about putting everything on the line and making my training and focus second to none."
After failing to make it to the podium at Gold Coast, Anas won three silver medals at Jakarta last year - and makes no secret of the fact that he worked on stricter routines to avoid a repeat of the disappointment of the Commonwealth Games.
"I was obviously not happy with the result (at Gold Coast). When I train, I only do it with an aim of winning a Gold medal. The training has been rigorous since CWG 2018. My routines have become stricter. I have worked a lot on my discipline as well. There was an overall change in my preparation for the Asian Games this time which I feel has been the difference."India Men's 4X400m Relay team members Amoj Jacob, Arokia Rajiv, Muhammed Anas Yahiya, and Jeevan Karekoppa Suresh after qualification during the Commonwealth Games 2018 in Gold Coast.
The 24-year-old may have created history by making it to Rio but getting on the flight to Tokyo will require a monumental effort. The qualification standard for making it to next year's Games is 44.90 seconds while the best that Anas has managed to clock this season is 45.89.
Yet, the determined runner remains hopeful - and is counting on his coach to provide him with some cutting-edge techniques to make the elite grade.
"As I said before, I am going to keep training everyday with each day as an improvement to the previous. Yes, my coach will be working on setting different techniques to help me improve on my season best so it’s ideal that I do everything in my power to follow everything she sets for me to do."
"What will be key is that I don’t lose focus till I have not achieved the qualification mark. I am currently training in Poland and will look back at the last few competitions and just going to work my techniques."
The Kerala lad reminisces about his days at the MMHS School, at Nilamel, in the city of Kollamnear the Malabar Coast where he first decided to take to sprinting, following which he excelled at the Calicut University Championships as a student of SreekrishnaCollege in Guruvayur.
While a great many aspiring athletes in India could well do with more support from the establishment, Anas was fortunate enough to be part of a state that recognized his talent.
"Sports culture in my school was really good considering the time in which I was in school. We had great coaches who were always there to guide us at the right time."
"In fact, I started as a long jumper in the 5th standard. It was only because of my coach who spotted me during a trial run when I had clocked 49 seconds, who convinced me that I should become a sprinter instead."
"These are the small things that can make a lot of difference in an athlete's career as opposed to not having a mentor and thereby never realizing your potential. Fortunately, I had enough support due to my school’s culture due to which I could pick up sprinting."
"My state has been very helpful thankfully. A lot of athletes miss out on their chances because the responsible authority does not have a proper structure to guide the athletes or support them. Fortunately, I have received enough support. My state has recognized my talent and helped me enough to hone it."His national record of 45.32 shattered his own mark of 45.40 and helped Anas qualify for Rio Olympics.
The Olympian who was picked to join the Indian Navy following the National Games in 2015 has not had the easiest of journeys after he lost his father at an early age, but was guided along by his mother who helps him remain grounded following his resounding success as a sportsman.
"Being a single parent for quite some time, it was never easy for my mother but she never showed us her hardships. She always supported me in pursuing my dream of becoming a sprinter."
"She has been a pillar and I can’t ask for anything more than that from a parent. She continues to guide me even today, always asking me to remain humble and grounded. There are days when I don’t feel so good about my training or I am low on confidence but she is always there to push me harder and keep me motivated. That’s the best part."
Indian athletics is in dire need of a lot more talented youngsters who are willing to strive and make the sacrifices required to make it big on the international stage.
So, what does it take to produce an Olympian like Mohammad Anas- is there a mantra for success at the highest level?
"There is no substitute to hard work. And success will never come your way if you take the shortcut instead of the high road. Just keep training as hard as you can and always remain focused. Don’t give up no matter how difficult it gets for you. Make your passion your priority, and nothing will be able to stop you from being successful."
Great words of wisdom, indeed, from a trailblazer who has walked the talk - and has plenty more to aim for.