If one isn’t an ardent follower of the women’s 800m event, it is likely that the name of Sushma Devi wouldn’t ring a bell. After all, the golden girl in this two-lap race is the Asian Games bronze medallist Tintu Luka. The pre-race talk at the PAC Stadium revolved around whether or not Luka could cross the line under 2:00.46, the qualifying mark for the Commonwealth Games. Even after taking into account the sweltering dry heat, Luka, who had clocked 2:00.56 at the Diamond League in Doha, was expected to register her season’s best.
However, Dr Nikolai Snesarev, the Belarussian middle and long distance coach, sensed something special was to come from his ward Sushma. The 66-year-old climbed onto a rickety step ladder and precariously place himself atop the 20-feet high photo-finish camera-stand before the start of the 800m race.
Nikolai’s instruction to the slight but wiry Sushma was to keep pace with the leaders and produce a final burst of speed with 150m to go. But following these instructions in a field that contains Tintu is easier said than done.
When up against a world-class field Tintu has shed her strategy of running the first lap hard because often she has little left in the tank around the final bend. But at the 54th National Inter-State Athletics Championships, she went back to this strategy because she was purely running against the clock.
For a majority of the race it was Sinimol A Markose shadowing Tintu with Sushma a couple of metres behind. The trio of runners had taken a clear lead over the rest but in spite of Tintu’s raw speed she was not able to shake off Sinimol and Sushma. Tintu’s coach PT Usha has worked on strengthening her core muscles, which in turn helps the athlete maintain her stability and overcome the wobbling her head and torso undergo when she pushes hard.
But halfway through the final lap, Tintu’s head started to sway. After being pursued by Sinimol right till 600 metres, Luka seemed to have just enough energy left to nick the race. At this point, Sushma found the gear coach Nikolai believed she had. Down the final stretch, Sushma became a threat. She first went past Sinimol and then to the utter disbelief of the athletes and technical officials watching, edged past Tintu to win gold.
It was all the more special as Sushma had to overcome a knee injury that left the 29-year-old from Sonepat on the sidelines for two years.
Sushma is the odd one out in a group of 10 – who train under Nikolai and are based at the Madras Regimental Centre in Wellington, Kunoor – because she is the only 800 metre runner in the group while the others are middle and long distance campers.
Her timing of 2:02.05 was a personal best and Nikolai believes that in the months leading to the Incheon Asian Games the daughter of marginal farmers has the potential to go faster. “I have never beaten Tintu Luka in a race before. So this is a big day for me,” Sushma said. “I lost two years because of the knee injury but since I started training with Nikolai I have gained the belief that I can compete at the highest level.”
Sahana, Ravinder qualify
Women’s high jumper Sahana Kumar attempted to break her national record of 1.92 metres and though she failed to clear 1.93, her gold-medal winning performance of 1.89 was good enough to make the grade for the Commonwealth Games. In the men’s javelin throw, Ravinder Singh won gold by throwing 78.02m, well above the qualifying mark of 77.29. Asian Games champion in the women’s 400m hurdles, Ashwini Akkunji made a winning return to her event after a gap nearly four years with a meet record (57.43).