Just before the final of the women’s 3000 metres steeplechase, Lalita Babar and Sudha Singh approached Belarus-born coach Nikolai Snesarev with a simple query. They wanted to know which pair of spikes to wear. The choice was between wearing competition spikes or practice spikes in the race. Snesarev, a hard taskmaster who is known to have a temper, berated the women and told them he was not going to spoon-feed them anymore. “Next you will ask me to run the race for you,” he shot back after telling them to make their own choice with regard to the spikes.
Snesarev is a nightmare for those he trains. He is like an old school teacher who uses the cane and does not believe in wrapping his wards in cotton wool. He even monitors their phone usage, sleep cycles and calorie intake. The women don’t even speak to each other when he is around. Even a whisper during training sessions can earn a tongue lashing. And yet, they revere the 67-year-old coach because he continues to produce results.
Friday was a rare day when Snesarev smiled, shook hands and was warm to Lalita and Sudha. For a few moments he melted and became a doting father figure. The change in mood was because both of them excelled in the 3,000 metres steeplechase on the second day of the 20th Federation Cup National Athletics Championships.
Lalita, who had already qualified for the event, broke her own national record with a timing of 9:27.09 seconds. Sudha finished second (9:31.86) but was fast enough to qualify for Rio Olympics, the entry standard for which is 9:45.00.
The event was always going to be a two-horse race with both of Snesarev’s wards pushing each other.
Sudha was given the opportunity to opt for the event only after a showdown with the coach and after the Athletics Federation of India stepped in to broker peace. Things had reached a point of no return when Sudha and another trainee OP Jaisha threatened to quit the camp earlier this year unless they were allowed to choose track events over marathon.
The catch was that both Sudha and Jaisha had qualified in marathon for the Rio Games but were yet to make the cut in 3000 metres steeplechase — in the case of the former — and 1500m — in the latter’s case.
Earlier in the evening Jaisha won gold in 1,500m but was not fast enough to qualify for the Olympics. An hour later the onus was on Sudha to prove that her insistence on running the steeplechase was the right one.
“This was more or less my first competition in steeplechase since the 2014 Asian Games. I ran in one competition in between but I was not prepared enough. It is only from February that I started training for the steeplechase. Coach Nikolai was keen that we run only the marathon. But I felt I had a better chance in the track event. It took a while to convince the coach that I would be better suited for the steeplechase than the marathon,” Sudha said.
However, training for marathon and gaining the physical and mental strength to run 42 kilometres, Sudha says, has helped her become a much stronger runner over the shorter track distances.
“At first when I started training for marathon I was worried whether I would be able to finish the event or not. But to finish in the top-20 in marathon at the world championship was an achievement. I now have the confidence that I can run a marathon and that has helped me become a better athlete. Today is a memorable day because at the back of my mind I knew I had to qualify for the steeplechase because it is not advisable to shift between training schedules for marathon and track events.”
At the end of the race coach Nikolai when asked about the performance of both his wards said they still had many days of hard work ahead of them. “Today was a good performance, but the athletes should not be satisfied with this performance. They have lots more to do before going to the Olympics.”
In his own way the coach was giving the women a pat on their shoulder but readying them for the hard yards that lay ahead.