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On a gleaming afternoon in his one bedroom apartment at Mumbai, Siddhanth Thingalaya frantically looks at all the forms for his Visa and shooting emails to the Athletics Federation of India, just in case he is accepted for the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, Australia. More often than not, he ends up going through the same process of frantic and helter-skelter before any major event outdoors.
Early YearsAs numerous athletes in India, Siddhanth hails from a middle-class family. Both his parents worked as banking Officers with his Dad now retired. His joy for sports started with football playing central midfield which involved rigorous running. This, in turn, played a significant part in building his foundation with an increased appetite for running and overall physique. On his coach's advice, he stuck to sprinting and started participating in various Inter-School competitions, only to win all of them. 'My parents support me because of my passion for the sport. All their savings have gone into my training and that isn't right because they don't enjoy their life. He recalls during a summer camp, 'I turned up for running with slippers and football shorts whereas all other students already were in proper gear. But I was never worried about that because I knew I had the speed to outpace them' And he did. This early realization of his talent by him and his parents is what kick-started his sprinting career. Siddhanth isn't an archetypical guy. He stands 6'3 tall and well built. He is a disciplined Mama's boy yet vivacious at times. By 2010 Siddhanth was still juggling between studies and sports, realized that doing something in sports would be more of an achievement than just having passed out with academics. He did a training stint in Australia under Mittal Champions Trust and had participated at South Africa under the Mittal Champions Trust and clocked 14.31 seconds at the high altitude Potchefstroom in March 2010. A few months later, he went on to win the silver medal in the Asian Junior Meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, clocking a personal best 13.96 seconds (99.0 cm hurdles), while setting a new Indian Junior record. He competed for India in the 2010 World Junior Championships, missing qualifying for the semi-finals by .03 in his heat running 14.09. 'Breaking the junior national record by clocking 13.89 then gave me a sign that I need to work on becoming a professional. Now I had to learn to be a better hurdler. I used to read books and research over videos and try to pick something up. I still do that'
Gary Cabalayan'I never knew what a Trail Leg clearance and Lead Leg clearance was. The only clearance I knew was to jump over the hurdle in front of me,' he laughs, 'All I had to myself was my gut to back me up and all the patterns etched in my muscle memory. Till 2014 and even in the Commonwealth Games, I used to run with a bit of rawness in me. No coach, no technique, just my intuition and the desire to run' However, Siddhanth eventually came across a boiling problem. His timings weren't getting any better. 'I wasn't doing a sub 13.85. It was always near or around it. I didn't feel good at that time. Started to lose hope.' After feeling stagnant with his timings and being in a plateau state for a long time without any improvements, Siddhanth was introduced to Gary Cabalayan through a friend of DeSean Jackson. 'Gary is more of a friend than a coach to me' Initially, Gary was skeptical about working with Siddhanth but after watching a few videos of Siddhanth he opted to coach him. 'I remember the first time I met Gary, he told me not to run fast. I was stunned. He told me to work on the basics first and then get on with improving my technique' Siddhanth stresses on the difference that Gary has had in his life -Personally and Professionally. 'Gary is more of a friend than a coach to me' he says, 'We talk, we fight and we question each other's opinions during training, but it's never personal. We understand each other on a mental level. Our only objective is to get better'. During the 2015 season whilst Gary was working on improving Siddhanth's technique, his timings weren't improving. He recalls, '2015 was the worst year of my career. My timings were not great. I had a couple of injuries and Gary and I were still working on getting my technique right'. But in every athlete's career, there comes a time when everything just starts to click. All the hours at the training ground actually find space on the field. This for Siddhanth Thingalaya happened in 2016 season when he participated in the Canyon State Games in Arizona where he clocked a personal best of 13.59, besting it at another track event in Florida with a time of 13.54. 'I could see the technique working in my favor. My reaction time improved. Overall by now (2016 season) I had a really good rhythm about my running. It took a year for the techniques and training to bear fruit, but it did eventually,' he says.
Sponsorships and Collateral issuesMost athletes in India even before they reach world stage, are deprived of opportunities because of 2 reasons - Lack of Funds and Sponsorship. Siddhanth had his fair share of sponsorship deprecation. There have been many events that were deprived of him because of a lack of sponsorships. He even started a small crowdfunded scheme which involved people near and dear to him supplying with the funds. 'My parents support me because of my passion for the sport. All their savings have gone into my training and that isn't right because they don't enjoy their life. They cut down on things they want to do like travel. So I am hopeful this crowdfunding scheme will trigger something.' It has helped him raise about Rs. 50000 as of now. Siddhanth speaks disgruntledly about the hardships he has faced while at an event. 'There have been times that I've run at different events with the same kit. There have been times where my coach wasn't allowed an entry pass so he had to train from his hotel balcony which was inconvenient," he continues. "There have been times where another country's coach has helped me with my warm-ups and stretches because I had no coach'
Importance of Better Coaching, Schedule and StructureHe emphasizes on the difference in coaching between Indian and foreign coaches. 'If you see, all top athletes in India train abroad. They camp abroad. Their coaches are experts in their line. And their training regime and techniques are worlds' apart." "There are proper masseuse and chiropractors and physiotherapists available to make sure the body is at a good level," he says while mentioning about Gary's training regime and ethics. This is an issue with training academies and institutions in India where, there is sincere dearth of world-class coaches and facilities, implementation of sports science is at a meagre level and monitoring of a diet regime. This raises a question of why hasn't the AFI templated the facilities and other necessities from foreign countries to India. In the long run, it would only benefit a lot of athletes in India while also raising the competitiveness within the athletes. "If I am on a track then I need to be the lion on that track." Siddhanth digresses on the issues he has faced while participating at various events and pinpoints to traveling and recovery as the main villains for not performing at an optimum level for events. In the recently concluded IAAF World Indoor Championships held at Birmingham, Siddhanth received his traveling documents and visas at the 11th hour, only to arrive in England vehemently late and ran the track without any proper practice or getting acclimatized to the conditions there. He continues, 'Travelling is not a major problem. It is the recovery after it that causes all the problems. Recovering from a long flight to run the next day at full power is difficult for anyone. If there is a schedule maintained then I would get time to rest, train and get acclimatized before the actual event' 'This is where I feel Khelo India will serve a great purpose'. Khelo India is a National Development Programme of sports which, Siddhanth mentions this as a very good initiative. Khelo India will create a great platform for the youth and upcoming athletes'. Just like the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA in the US, Khelo India, in collaboration with Schools and Colleges should also serve a great opportunity for the federation to create a learning path and more importantly, create opportunities for various athletes and junior sportsmen to have a career out of it. 'Through Khelo India, we will have great athletes and sportsmen coming out in the next few years' He also hopes for fellow athletes with the likes Tejaswin Shankar and Neeraj Chopra to improve further and compete at the highest level. Also read: Hit or miss: Re-evaluating the success of Khelo India School Games
What drives Siddhanth Thingalaya?Sitting on his couch he isn't uncouth but acknowledges the risks and sacrifice the people near and dear to him took so that he could advance in his career. He spoke The Bridge in depth about why he doesn't take things for granted, 'I have been blessed to have really good parents and a good coach and friends. They have taken away all other burdens from me. They do not let me worry about the monetary factor, nor about gears or new kits' speaking in benignity when talking about his parents. 'My coach Gary helped me a lot too. He helped me settle at his Grandfather's home so that I don't end up spending too much money or time between trainings.' He mentions how everyday he had to spend $100 on an Uber ride from his rented apartment to the track for training, and this was just one way. 'I need to be mentally strong. It's all about mental strength. If I am on a track then I need to be the lion on that track. Even though I know there are world champions besides me, I need to be the lion on the track, because I know everyone is taking a risk for me and sacrificing something to help me get better. That is what keeps me on the ground.' 'If I want more athletes from India competing at world level then I need to be that guy that people look up to.' We were midway stopped during our interview with his Mom for Chai and Shira (Indian sweet dish). His Mom is a soft-spoken lady, very humble but passionate about having a healthy life. She makes it a point to go to the gym every day. Whilst talking about Thingalaya's achievement, there is an air of obviousness of how proud she is of him. 'I remember taking him to practice when he was small and there were other kids with gears and proper shoes and we could only afford so much. We made it a point to buy him at least shoes so that he doesn't get hurt while running. I still have his first kit from one of the junior events,' she says with a big grin on her face, 'I'm nostalgic that way' Siddhanth's father, on the other hand, was less talkative. He would only acknowledge to some of the facts that were spoken. There was, however, a sense of gratitude from him toward his son. A thanking in his silence for the people that are talking and writing about his son's achievements.
Future ThoughtsSiddhanth is currently planning to go the US to have some warm weather training. 'Whether Commonwealth happens or not I don't know, I am just keeping myself ready for everything. I am training so that I can do a flat 13 or maybe even a sub-13. Those extra milliseconds, that is the time I want to fight for.' 'I am raring to go. Each time I am in the finals then anything can happen. The world hasn't seen India to have the best of hurdlers. They need to see it." Siddhanth has his mind set on for the Asian Games and the European circuits along with Tokyo 2020 even though it's a bit far-fetched. 'When they see Siddhanth Thingalaya on the track they need to see him as a hopeful athlete and not another 'Just Qualified' hurdler.' Also read: From wooden sticks to picking up javelin: The journey of Vikas Yadav He reminiscences on a conversation he had with an Olympic medalist on a camp in UCLA, 'India has Sachin Tendulkar who plays Cricket and it is because of him that many other players have started playing Cricket,' said the Olympian, 'Does India have anyone like that in Hurdles or Sprints?'. 'That line really struck a chord' Siddhanth exclaims, 'If I want more athletes from India competing at world level then I need to be that guy that people look up to.' Siddhanth still avidly follows Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga. He speaks in detail about Barcelona and Real Madrid like Bayern, have active departments in other sports. 'These clubs have built world class facilities not only for football players but for everyone'. He wishes one day that could be part of their athletics team, not just to be part of a bigger franchise, but to experience a different level of competition.