You need to cross a water obstacle to reach the home of India’s best steeplechaser.
Not the vertical hurdle on a flat track that Avinash Sable gracefully leaps over to bag medals, but a five-foot wide crater, with brown slushy water, that can swallow a sedan.
Beyond this point, there are no roads, no water. “And no prospects, too,” says Amol Kadam, a school teacher. “75 years of independence and we still wait for our basic rights. But it’s okay, we will wait for 75 years more, and 75 after that for a decent road and tapped water. Who’s in a rush?”
The hopelessness in the 36-year-old’s voice is visible on the faces of the thousand-odd inhabitants of Mandwa, a blink-and-miss village in the centre of the Balaghat Mountain Range in Maharashtra’s Beed district.
It’s pouring down on a Tuesday afternoon, which you’d assume would be happy news for one of Maharashtra’s most drought-prone districts. Rather, it only exposes the complex relationship the region has with nature: if it rains a lot, like on Tuesday afternoon, the crops get damaged; and when it rains less, it’s a drought.
“There’s injustice from politicians, there’s injustice from nature. If you are born here, the circumstances are such that you are destined to be a failure,” Kadam laments. “This is why Avinash Sable’s success means so much to us. He’s like a wallflower; not to be seen by the world. But still he’s here. An invisible genius, that’s what Avinash is.”
Around here, however, he isn’t ‘invisible’. With the GPS as useful as a raincoat in this barren land, a temple was, for years, a guide to navigate the slippery terrains – school, 5km south of the temple; market, a couple of kilometres to the west…
These days, the Commonwealth Games silver medallist’s under-construction, the eight-bedroom house has become a reference. Call it palatial navigation.
Being constructed on one of the highest points of the range, the rooftop of this mansion offers an unobstructed, breathtaking view of the village: lush green slopes in the front where deer prance around and cattle graze, acres of family’s farmland to the left and right along with a water bund to ensure year-round supply.
Sable, who crisscrosses the world for training and competition, yearns to return to nature’s lap, his younger brother Yogesh says. “When he decided to construct a house here, I asked, ‘why not in Pune or some other city?’” Yogesh recalls. “He replied, ‘what’s in a city? I’m going to live here for the rest of my life.’”
The ‘lazy’ mason
Sable’s story doesn’t begin at this under-construction palace.
It starts, instead, at a tin-shed hut with no lights and one room a kilometre downhill, where Mukund and Vaishali Sable, who worked at a brick kiln, raised their three children. The husband and wife would start their work at around 2 am and slog on well past sunset for a combined wage of Rs 100-150 per day.
“It wasn’t much but just enough to get by. Let’s just say we didn’t sleep on an empty stomach. But there wasn’t anything else we would indulge in,” Vaishali says.
Yogesh, who walked – and occasionally ran – 6km to school every day with his brother Sable, adds: “We had no expectations from life. Our aim was to get some basic education and get work as a farmer or labourer, like everyone else around here.”
Sable was in Class 7 when, following selection trials at his school, he got selected by talent scouts for distance-running under a state government scheme for promising junior athletes. In 2006, he was sent to an academy in Aurangabad but three years later, Sable was dropped from the programme because, according to Yogesh, ‘the coaches did not see any potential in him.’
Even before he could dream of being a sportsman, Sable’s career had crashed. He returned to Mandwa after his first brush with ‘failure’. But the happy-go-lucky teenager quickly adopted a new routine – and even found his new passion: the humble vada pav.
“For two years, he would wake up at 5 am, practice for half an hour, tend the cattle, and used to leave for college (10+2) at 8 am,” Yogesh says. On his way to college, Sable would drop by the brick kiln to borrow Rs 10 from his parents so that he could eat vada pav after college. “Every day, he ate that, every day! He was so lazy,” Yogesh laughs. “You could see it from his appearance. He’d put on so much that it didn’t look like he is a poor labourer’s son,” Mukund, his father, bellows.
This is also the time he began working as a mason. It’s what most did in Mandwa – with a severe paucity of employment opportunities, youngsters here, Kadam, the school teacher, says are generally left with two options: either work as a labourer in and around the village or move to a city and become a daily wager there. Farming, he adds, due to the water crisis, isn’t a viable career option for the majority.
“Avinash had done his Class 12 in Arts. What job will you get after 12th Arts? So, he started working for anyone who needed men for construction activities… pakka hard labour. He did this to support his expenses, to buy clothes, a mobile phone… a very basic one. He did not want to be a burden to our parents so for two years after college, he worked as a mason for Rs 100 per day,” Yogesh says.
His parents offered to sell the tiny farmland they owned to fund his graduation. Sable, however, refused to take their help.
The ‘goofy’ Armyman
Instead, the ‘goofy and absent-minded’ Sable, banking on his brief sporting background, chose to take part in a recruitment camp held by the Army, in Ahmednagar, the closest major town to Mandwa.
Sable, his younger brother says, passed all tests with ‘flying colours’. “But he had forgotten to carry his documents so they sent him back!” Six months later, he reappeared for trials in Osmanabad, got selected again, and this time, Sable’s memory hadn’t failed him.
Yogesh recalls how the two brothers spent their nights on a footpath outside the Army Institute of Physical Training (AIPT) in Pune in 2012 when they went for his medicals and other verifications because they had no money to stay in a hotel.
“We had just Rs 2,000 in our pockets for all the fees and our travel. We couldn’t afford a room so we slept overnight on a footpath outside the AIPT. And that too, only one person would sleep so that the other could guard the money,” Yogesh says.
In December 2012, Sable became a part of the army – ‘the first from the village to get a proper job with a fixed monthly salary’, according to Yogesh. “He was content with it. He hoped to save enough to build a house and live a peaceful life.”
Instead, the next couple of years in the army would turn into a series of adventures, some of which he laughs about with his brother and some, which were near-fatal.
This one time, while undergoing his training, Yogesh says Sable and his training partner were on a night patrol when both passed out. As his luck would have it, a senior was on supervising duty and saw both trainees sleeping with the rifles unguarded. “Next day, he was punished. I don’t think anyone would’ve been punished as much as him,” Yogesh laughs. “He’d have been standing with those truck tires around his shoulders all day… so many punishments!”
Sable Jr narrates a story when, again during training, a misfired bullet nearly hit his elder brother while the other time, in Siachen, he had another narrow escape when a fellow soldier passed away in a mishap on duty, where Sable too was supposed to be posted.
Even the family isn’t exactly aware of how he returned to sport but Yogesh feels it was a taunt that drew Sable back to running. “He was very healthy, weighing around 84-85kg. Someone taunted him, saying that ‘anyone can join the Army, there’s nothing special in what he achieved’,” Yogesh says, adding that it’s one of the few subjects Sable hasn’t opened up about. “That, in a way, propelled him. The Army life was very tough anyway, so he thought, why not give sports another shot?”
Sable, the steeplechaser
In 2015, stumbling upon one life goal after another – from masonry to army – Sable finally found his calling in sport. He’d practice to get back into shape in the spare hours after duty, even if it meant running for hours in the middle of the night.
Olympian Nitendra Rawat, a marathoner, was one of the first to help him. During the 2016 National Championships, Sable was on the Services’ cross-country team where he finished fifth in a race full of established names. Rawat saw the potential in Sable and after the race, introduced him to Amrish Kumar, the army coach who’d go on to play an inspirational role in the athlete’s career.
Yogesh says to support his running, Sable would go hunting for races and take part in – and won – events all over Mumbai and its suburbs. “The salary he received from the army, he gave it at home because he did not wish that our parents should work at the brick kiln, given he was now an earning member,” Yogesh says. “So, to support his sports expenses, mainly dietary needs, he began running races. The cash prize was used for protein supplements.”
The switch to steeplechase happened after the 2017 nationals, Yogesh, himself a 5k runner, says. During the championship in Chennai, Sable clocked close to 9:05 minutes, which was the second-fastest time of the race behind another army man and former Asian medallist, Naveen Dagar.
His diary entries from 2018 to 2020 provide a peek into Sable’s mindset as well as his evolution from a wannabe long-distance runner to a champion steeplechaser.
In one of the posts, he declares his target – “now start of Asian Games” – and meticulously notes down his everyday training regimen, including the number of laps he needs to run, the pace that needs to be maintained, along with other stretching and running exercises.
In another entry, he seems to be self-motivating himself vis-à-vis his steeplechase progress while there are pages dedicated to Belarusian coach Nicolai Snesarev, who – Yogesh says – turned Sable into a serious runner with lofty targets.
The family man
When Sable qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, the Maharashtra government awarded a cash prize of Rs 50 lakh.
Sable used that money in a way that was hardly surprising: first to get a permanent water connection at his home, then construct a water bund to ensure a year-round supply for the crops before building a new house. “All our life, we have had to walk at least 2km to get drinking water,” Vaishali says. “Now, we just need to turn the tap on. It’s magic, which has been made possible by Sable.”
The family moved from their small hut downhill to a smaller one closer to their farmland and their under-construction home. Last year, after a disappointing finish at the Tokyo Olympics, Sable found refuge in this corner of the world.
He’d spend mornings tending the cattle and taking after the farms. And in the afternoons, he’d go back to his masonry days and construct parts of his new house. “That was the time he was confused and clueless. He wasn’t sure if he’d compete again, so he found solace in this,” Yogesh says.
The family’s life has changed beyond recognition, his father Mukund says. “Dev manus aahe (He is a God-like figure). Lives with simplicity, does everything for the family…”
Mukund hasn’t watched many of Sable’s races. He doesn’t understand what steeplechase is. And doesn’t bother about the other finer nuances. But his chest swells with pride while talking about his son’s thrilling run in Birmingham last week, where Sable became the first non-Kenyan athlete to finish on the podium of the 3,000m steeplechase after six editions of the Commonwealth Games.
“I just know he finished second, and I am very proud of him. But I didn’t understand the race,” Mukund says. “Kenya kaay aahe? (What is Kenya?)”
For people still waiting for roads and water, it’s a world too far removed.