As 28-year-old Manjit Singh ran his way to win the gold medal in men’s 800-m final, edging out compatriot Jonson Johnson, in Asian Games in Jakarta, Singh’s wife Kiran Devi was showing their five-month-old son Abhir the medal ceremony on television at their home at Narwana near Jind. Singh, who became the third Indian athlete to win a gold medal in this year’s Asian Games after Tajinder Toor and Neeraj Chopra, has not yet met his son since he was born and Singh’s gold medal on Tuesday meant it would also be an end to the long wait for his family.
“Since Abhir was born, my husband has not come home, instead training in Ooty and Bhutan. Even though he has been training without a job, he makes sure that he keeps sending Abhir gifts. But this gold medal is the biggest gift for him. When he returns, he would put the gold medal around his neck,” Kiran says.
While Manjit’s father Randhir Singh Chahal would compete in discus throw and shot put events in master categories in their native village of Ujhana, where he has a 30-acre farm apart from a dairy in their home in Narwana, a young Manjit would often go the local stadium in Narwana for running. A spot in the sports nursery at the Navdeep Stadium meant his interest in athletics grew before he shifted to Jalandhar to study in Sports College, Jalandhar, where his uncle Kuldeep Singh Chahal, currently Mohali SSP, was posted as SHO. “Manjit always had a passion for running. He was five years old when he started running and he would sometimes take buffaloes for grazing while running. When he was selected in the sports nursery at the stadium, the track was in very bad condition. But he would run along with his coach and never complained. At that time, we had 5-6 buffaloes in our dairy and he would spend most of his time running. But he always made sure he was at home during the milking time so that he could get fresh milk to drink,” says 64-year-old Randhir Singh Chahal.
A spot in the Indian team for 2010 Commonwealth Games was followed by a fourth place in Asian Championships in Pune in 2013 for Manjit and the Haryana athlete followed up that performance with a silver medal in Federation Cup in 2014. It was also the time when Manjit was contracted by ONGC but the ending of contract in 2015 meant he was without a job. “Manjit had an offer from Indian Railways earlier, but he did not want to shift his focus from training. In our dairy business, we often sell buffaloes to places like Mumbai and the earnings were not that good during those years. When he was not selected for 2014 CWG and Asian games, he was a bit disappointed but he told us that he cannot leave training. So we would send him Rs 20,000 every month,” remembers Chahal.
In 2015, Singh shifted base to Bareilly to train under coach Amrish Kumar, who worked in Indian Army and trained athletes at Jat Regiment Centre. Singh won the silver medal in Federation Cup the same year apart from winning a silver medal in nationals in 2016 and 2017. This year saw Singh reaching his personal best mark of one minute and 46.24 seconds in nationals in Guwahati and coach Kumar believes that the three years of training without job motivated the athlete. “Manjit came to train under me when 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist Naveen Kumar told him about the training in Bareilly. The end of contract with ONGC meant that Manjit had added some weight as he missed training for some time. So we made him have juice and fruits only for some months. At the centre, most of the trainees are soldiers and sometimes, they take holidays but Manjit never took a leave. ‘Medal jeetna hai desh ke liye, sir’ was what he would tell us. But he knew that with time, he will nearing 28. Last year’s silver medal in nationals felt like a new life for him,” the coach said.
As for the Chahal family, it will be barfi and kalakand when Manjit returns to Narwana. “Manjit loves barfi and kalakand made by our mother Bimla Devi. When he is at home, he helps in dairy work but he makes sure he gets the fresh milk,” says Manjit’s younger brother Amarjeet.