"It hurts when people still ridicule my sport," says CWG medallist Priyanka Goswami
Priyanka Goswami became the first Indian woman to win a Racewalking medal at Commonwealth Games, but she is disappointed people still do not understand her sport.
Known as one of northern India's industrial hubs, Meerut in Uttar Pradesh is fast becoming a hotspot of champion athletes who shine on the world stage. From veteran javelin thrower Annu Rani to recent U-20 World Championship medallist Rupal Chaudhary, it is producing some gems for India.
One such gem, 26-year-old Priyanka Goswami, who became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games in Racewalking last month, however, still faces ridicule when she tells people she walks in races.
"Abhi bhi kuch log puchte hai, kya karte ho? Aur jab main batati hoon ki Racewalking karti hu, toh unka reaction hota hai - Hain? (Still, people ask me what I do and when I tell them I am a racewalker they ridicule me)," Priyanka told The Bridge.
"It hurts when such things happen. Despite representing India at the Olympics and winning a medal at CWG when such a thing happens it feels bad. Racewalking is a global sport and it attracts a huge crowd whenever we go on foreign tours, but in India, nobody turns up when such events are conducted. Even in Birmingham, I had crowd support and it helped me a lot," Priyanka said with a smile.
Priyanka shattered a three-year-old national record to clinch the silver medal in the women's 10,000m race walk at the CWG and script history for India in Birmingham. She also holds the national record in both the women's 20km and 35 km disciplines.
"Yes, life has changed a bit after my CWG silver. People have started giving a little recognition but it is still negligible. It is an improvement from what it was a few years back though, now people know that we win medals at the international level," she said.
'Extremely technical sport'
An exciting Athletics discipline with ebbs and flows which draws huge crowds in some countries, mostly in Europe, Racewalking has always had detractors. In 1992, Olympic commentator Bob Costas compared the sport to "a contest to see who can whisper the loudest."
Priyanka said it might sound simple - or even look simple to an untrained eye - but Racewalking is an extremely technical sport. And it's hardly all about speed.
"It looks easy but it is not. One of the most important aspects of Racewalking is that athletes should always be in contact with the ground. The supporting leg has to remain straight when the raising leg crosses. Speed is not that important, what is more important is to follow the technique and avoid the penalty of bending the knee," she explained.
There are many who still give Priyanka unimpressed reactions on hearing that she walks in races, but what escapes them is that her round-the-year training is not only about improving her speed of walking. Endurance training is what her weekly regimen starts with.
"Our weekly mileage is fixed and we train accordingly. When we approach the event, we train on the speed more and in the off-season, the technique is improved," she said.
Long walk to history
Priyanka Goswami has been one of the poster girls in the rise of Indian Athletics over the last year ever since her CWG medal. But it has been a long walk to history for her. She started Racewalking after winning a bag at a school race, but it seemed her aspirations were doomed when her father Madan Goswami was forced out of his job as a bus conductor in UP Roadways when she was just 14.
"Athletics maine isliye shuru kiya kyuki usme prize milta tha. Sprint me mauka nahi mila, toh maine racewalking me part liya aur mujhe bag mila prize me. Tab se ye ho gaya ki yahi karna hai kyuki isme prize mila hai. (I chose athletics cause they used to give prizes in that. I didn't get a chance to sprint, so took part in Racewalking and won a bag. So, I thought I won a prize in this and this is what I will do)," Priyanka said.
When she went to the Patiala camp for training, she used to eat at a langar to save money, surviving on the monthly pocket money of Rs 4,000 her father sent her. Till 2017, when she was signed up for the GoSports Long-Term Athlete Development Programme.
When she stood on the CWG podium, holding the silver medal aloft with her right hand and clutching her Lord Krishna idol in her left hand, all those days of struggle would have seemed like a distant memory.
Sports culture in Meerut
Meerut has emerged as an Athletics hub despite there being no international-standard track at the Kailash Prakash Stadium, an issue Priyanka Goswami had raised in a virtual interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the Tokyo Olympics last year.
Speaking about this phenomenon, she said, "It is about the culture. Meerut is one of the biggest manufacturers of sports clothing in India and everyone here knows about sports. With good facilities around, kids take up sports looking at their seniors. Annu didi is the senior, I came after that and now kids like Rupal are rising up the ranks."
Talking about the competition at the international level in Racewalking, Priyanka said, "More athletes are coming up now from India. We have 2-3 athletes who are consistently matching international standards."
"More international competitions mean more exposure for us. My World Championships outing helped me get a podium finish at the Commonwealth Games. For now, I am focussed on the upcoming Asian games and Olympics qualification," Priyanka signed off.