She has been quite a trendsetter in Indian athletics and Lalita Babar will be expected to scale new heights when she gets on her mark for the 3000m steeplechase final at the Rio Olympics on Monday.
Winning a medal will though will be tough but not entirely impossible for the 27-year-old from the drought-prone Satara district in Maharashtra, who became the second Indian woman after PT Usha in 1984 Los Angeles, to qualify for a final at the quadrennial extravaganza.
Babar qualified for the final round after finishing fourth in her heats with a national record timing of 9 minutes, 19.76 seconds.
She was the seventh fastest qualifier overall. Social media is abuzz with images of Babar’s parents visiting temples and performing pujas at her native place in Maharashtra and she is set to be torch bearer of Indian athletics in this Olympics if she repeats her timing or does better on Monday.
But, it will have to be seen whether Babar will be able to better Usha, who missed the bronze by one-hundreth of a second, or will she be able to have a sniff of the elusive athletics medal in Olympics as the field is extremely tough with the global creame in this event, including the reigning world champion, the reigning Olympic champion as well as the season leader, are all in the fray.
At least five runners, who finished ahead of Babar in the World Championships in Beijing last year, will be competing in the finals on Monday.
Babar had finished eighth in the World Championships with a time of 9:27.86.
The favourite to win tomorrow is Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet, who switched to Baharain colours in 2013.
She is the season leader with an astounding 8:59.97s which she clocked in Eugene in May and she ran 9:12.62 to win her heat on Saturday though she finished 11th at the World Championships last year behind Babar.
She is the athlete whose disqualification (after winning the gold) resulted to Babar’s original bronze being upgraded to silver in the 2014 Asian Games.
Then there is the 32-year-old veteran Habibi Gharibi of Tunisia who won the gold in London four years ago besides winning the silver in the World Championships last year.
She has a personal best of 9:05.36 which she clocked in September last year.
She clocked 9:18.71 to finished third in heat number 2.
24-year-old last World Championships gold winner Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkomoi of Kenya is also in the fray with a personal best of 9:00.01 which she clocked in She Eugene in May.
She clocked 9:24.61 to win heat number 3 on Saturday.
Babar will be up against the likes of Emma Coburn of United States with a personal best of 9:10.76 (fifth in last World Championships with 9:21.78), 2012 London Games silver medallist Sofia Assefa of Ethiopia (personal best 9:09.00 and season best of 9:18.16) and World Championships bronze medallist Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany (personal best of 9:18.85).
All of them are ahead of Babar in the season leading IAAF list.
Babar will be pumped up to do well in the field of elite runners as she has gone on producing better results in every big events but Indian experts feel that even a top-6 finish, if not a medal, will be considered a big achievement at the biggest stage of all.
That could be something to look ahead for the Indians on the Independence Day.
“Now all the focus for the final on the Independence Day,” she had said after her heats on Saturday.
Babar began her career as a long distance runner and her first international senior level foray was in 2009 when she took part in 3000m race in the Asian Indoor Championships in Hanoi.
She then shifted to 3000m steeplechase in 2013 before winning a bronze in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon where she broke the national record of Sudha Singh.
Since then, Babar had broken the national record at least five times before her training mate Sudha Singh did her turn by re-writing the mark during the Diamond League in Shanghai in May.
The best for Babar before Saturday’s national breaking effort was the 9:27.09 during the Federation Cup in New Delhi in April and she clipped more than seven seconds at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.
But experts say that once an athlete reached a top world level timing it is difficult to clip further by a big margin.
They say that Babar may clip by a couple of seconds but that may not be enough to make the medal cut.
After the 2014 Asian Games bronze, her graph has been on the rise with a gold in the Asian Championships and then a final round appearance in the World Championships last year in Beijing where she finished a creditable eighth.