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A Leap of faith

Jonathan Selvaraj meets national triple jump record holder Arpinder as he prepares for his sternest test yet.

Triple jumper Arpinder Singh, watched by coach SS Pannu, during training in Patiala. The 21-year-old’s coach will not be travelling with him to Glasgow. (Express photo by: Jasbir Malhi) Triple jumper Arpinder Singh, watched by coach SS Pannu, during training in Patiala. The 21-year-old’s coach will not be travelling with him to Glasgow. (Express photo by: Jasbir Malhi)

Rooms in the sports hostels at NIS, Patiala, are not permanently assigned to athletes. So, much like schoolchildren, who scribble their names on their desks, many of the athletes try and leave a mark in their rooms during their time there, so that the next batch knows who occupied the space before them.

Triple jumper Arpinder Singh was also greeted with such scribbles when he stepped into number 16 at the Dhyanchand hostel.  Siddhanth Thingalaya, the current national record holder in the 110m hurdles, had inked his name on one of the walls. So too had Joseph Abraham, the national record holder in the 400m hurdles and defending Asian Games gold medallist, who had also added the fact that he is an Arjuna awardee.

Arpinder hasn’t scrawled anything on the walls yet. What he does have is a piece of paper, stuck above his bed. It is a countdown calendar to the Commonwealth Games. The chart begins a month before his event on August 1. On each of the days leading up to D-Day, Arpinder has listed his jumps in practice — steadily increasing in magnitude. Under August 2 — the day of the triple jump final — is the target for Glasgow — 17.35m.

To add some perspective to the distance, 17.35m is nearly equivalent to a DTC low-floor bus and a couple of autos laid end to end. At the last Commonwealth Games, the best jump by an Indian was 17.07m. It fetched Renjith Maheshwary the bronze with what was then the national record. The gold was decided at 17.16m Arpinder’s chart and its target would thus have been fodder for laughter had it not been for the fact that he has already leapt beyond 17.17m only last month, at the inter-state championships in Lucknow.

The leap not only shattered Renjith’s record by 10cm, it is also the best jump  this year at the Commonwealth and Asian levels. It puts Arpinder among the top-seven jumpers of the world this season.

“Considering the fact that he has already jumped the best in the Commonwealth this year, our hopes are certainly on him that he will win a medal in Glasgow,” says national athletics chief coach Bahadur Singh.

The chart with the 17.35m target isn’t the first one that Arpinder has made. Tucked underneath his bed is one that was made a month before the inter-state meet. His goal then was 17.13m.
While Arpinder is being seen as Indian athletics big hope at the Commonwealth Games and beyond, the 21-year old from Harsh Chinna village near Amritsar recalls how this wasn’t always the case.

Four years ago it was Renjith who was hogging all the limelight. “When I arrived for the Commonwealth Games trials in Patiala in 2010, I didn’t have any idea that one day I was going to be the best triple jumper in the country. At that time Renjith bhai was the most successful jumper. When he said hello to me it was a great feeling that such a high quality jumper had taken the time to acknowledge me,” Arpinder recalls.

But even back then, Arpinder’s coach SS Pannu, who had earlier trained Renjith, believed the athlete was destined to be one of India’s finest. Pannu started coaching Arpinder at SAI Ludhiana in 2009, and felt he had many of Renjith’s strengths and more.

“Arpinder is tall (6’1”) and quick. But while Renjith would sometimes have to be pushed to do his training, that was never the case with Arpinder. There have been times when I have had to miss training because of some work, but Arpinder was always on the track,” says Pannu.

The coach reveals how Renjith would at times jokingly complain as to how Arpinder was going to break all his records. “He would tell me that since I was his first guru, I needed to treat him as Eklavya and take Arpinder’s thumb as gurudakshina,” Pannu recalls.

Renjith’s predictions started playing out at the 2010 junior nationals in Bangalore. Arpinder set a junior national record of 16.45m, erasing the old mark set by Renjith himself.

Taking over the mantle

Since then, Arpinder has regularly beaten Renjith. He won gold at the 2011 National Games in Ranchi and then four months later at the inter-state championships. Last year saw Arpinder land gold at the Asian Grand Prix in Colombo and then a silver at the Asian GP in Bangkok and a bronze at the Asian Championships in Pune. The national record in Lucknow, as such, was entirely expected. What adds to the excitement is the fact that Arpinder, who still isn’t quite 22, has some years before he hits his peak.

While figures may point towards him being a near certainty for a medal at the Commonwealth Games, recent events suggest Arpinder may not have things so easy for him in Glasgow.

That is because quite inexplicably, his coach has not been named as part of the contingent. The triple jump is an event where athletes make slight adjustments throughout their jumps, looking to get as close to the takeoff board without crossing it. Even though all athletes take 18 strides until the takeoff point, small changes in technique determine whether they end up fouling, take off from several inches behind the board or perform their jump to perfection.

In Lucknow, Arpinder fouled his first two attempts. On the third, Pannu advised him to take off from well behind the board. Arpinder’s run-up was tweaked over the next three attempts before he nailed the final jump.

“Of course I would want Pannu sir to travel with me to Glasgow. If he is around, I have that belief that in case I am making a mistake in my run-up, he will be there to suggest some changes. So, when he is not around, that fear is there that I don’t have someone to correct my mistakes,” says Arpinder.

Arpinder, thus, decided not to travel to Glasgow with the main athletics contingent which left Patiala on July 13, but rather leave a week late. While he hopes to train for as long as possible under Pannu, the trade-off will be that he has less time to acclimatise and will also miss out on a test competition this week.

Arpinder tries to take things positively. “It isn’t that I won’t be able to perform if I don’t have Pannu sir with me. There have been a number of times that I have travelled to competitions all by myself, and have done well. When I first broke the junior national record, I was travelling by myself. When I beat Renjith bhai for the first time, at the National Games in Ranchi, I was there myself. Even when I won the Asian GP gold in Colombo, Pannu sir was not with me,” he says.
But while Pannu wasn’t present in Colombo, he was at the other end of a frantic phone call.

“Arpinder wasn’t fouling his jumps but he wasn’t getting the distance either, because he was taking off from way behind the board. So, after his third jump, he called me and told me he wasn’t getting much acceleration in the last eight strides. I couldn’t see what he was doing because there was no live telecast, so I asked him to describe where he felt he was getting wrong. Based on what he told me, I advised him to focus on lifting his knee in the acceleration phase. He was able to do that and got the gold,” recalls Pannu.

Contingency plan

A similar contingency plan has been prepared for Glasgow. Pannu says he will watch the telecast of the Games on TV and then pass on suggestions to a javelin thrower who is a good friend of Arpinder.

Back in Patiala, Pannu is also trying to get Arpinder to figure out the solutions of the problems himself. “ I am trying to make him understand why I am suggesting the changes, so that he could make these adjustments by himself,” the coach says.

Success is clearly by no means guaranteed. “If he fails, no one can hold it against him. If he wins a medal in Glasgow, or even if he jumps beyond 17m, then that will be a big moment for his career. If he does achieve that, then regardless of whether I accompany him or not in the future, no one will be able to hold him back,” says Pannu.

Arpinder himself isn’t too worried about Glasgow. “Right now I am at the beginning of my career. My job is simply to work hard. I have plenty of time to leave my mark.”

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