When Soumya B finished the 20km race walk at the National Race Walking Championship ahead of Asian Games silver medallist Khushbir Kaur, the Kerala athlete was in total disbelief. so were the handful spectators gathered at the venue on Sunday. Soumya finished the race with an impressive 1:31:28.72s, an effort that helped her eclipse Khushbir Kaur’s national record (1:31:40.00s) set in Taicang in 2014. What drew the expression of disbelief was the fact that she improved her previous best, which she achieved last year, by almost 10 minutes. Khushbir’s sister Karamjit Kaur (1:34:08.60s) finished third.
“When I was approaching the final lap, I felt I had at least two more rounds to go. I could not believe that I had run to well,” the ever-smiling, diminutive walker said. Soumya, who is a constable in the Central Reserve Police Force, says she took up athletics to escape the clutches of poverty. Her father worked as a manual labourer in a stone quarry near her home in Vattapara, a village in Trivandrum district of Kerala. Little Soumya did not have athletics ambitions. All she knew was, doing well at the Kerala Sports Council trials would ensure her free education and accommodation, thus reducing her dad’s financial burdens.
Soumya joined the Sports Council hostel in Kollam, a 60km journey by road from her home, as a 14-year-old and started specializing in the middle-distance event. But she decided to switch to the walk discipline at the insistence of a local coach in her college in Kottayam. Soumya, who spent much of her childhood at the hostel, says she cannot recall the struggles her parents underwent in helping her pursue athletics. But Soumya is glad that her father could retire from his job as she and her brother Sabin are supporting them.
“I called my parents, they were so happy. I told them that I have a set a new national record too. I cannot believe this!” she said. “I think I have been able to improve so much this year because of my strength training. Under coach (Alexander Artsybashev), I have been training rigorously and the efforts are showing,” she said. The Nationals witnessed good numbers in terms of participation as it was a trial event for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Both Soumya and Khushbir are likely to earn a ticket to Gold Coast as they finished within AFI’s qualifying guidelines of 1 hour 33 minutes.
Irfan pips Manish
The men’s 20km event too saw some exciting competition as national campers Manish Rawat and KT Irfan fought till the very end. Irfan grabbed the 20km national title with 1:21:31:25s on the clock as Rio Olympian Rawat finished second with a timing of 1:23:31.72s.
Third-placed Neeraj clocked 1:21:39.20s as the top-three finished within AFI’s Commonwealth Games guideline of 1:23:00s. Irfan is one of the most experienced walkers in the country. His 10th finish at the 2012 London Olympics is still considered one of the best performances by an Indian walker. He was left heartbroken after failing to make it for Rio despite achieving qualification standards as the entries were filled by athletes with better timings.
“I was really disappointed on missing out on Rio. It was recovering from a stress fracture on my leg and could not perform up to my potential that year. Now I am really fit. When I reached Delhi, the first thing was to qualify for the Olympics,” said Irfan who owns the 20 km national record.
Athletics Federation of India secretary CK Valson said he was pleased with Sunday’s result and feels KT Irfan could be India’s trump card in Australia. “He is an experienced runner and is-inform too. We are banking on him. Let’s see.”