Snow fell unusually thick and fast in the winter months of 2000, reducing whatever limited visibility was available at night. But that could not be used as an excuse. Surinder Singh Bhandari had to keep his eyes peeled for any unnatural movement. He had recently been posted to the mountainous terrain just a few kilometres off the India-Pakistan border. It was more than a year since the Kargil War had ended. But Bhandari, who was among the soldiers standing as the second line of defence, recalls that the dust hadn’t quite settled.
Just a year earlier, Bhandari was learning the tricks of the trade. Wartime stipulation nonetheless quickened his training process and the then 22-year-old was sent to defend the border. Often he’d remember his friends from his village during that time. But he knew the only friend that mattered at the moment was the AK-47 he brandished. And often he’d have to use that friend. “We had to fire several rounds of warning shots in the air and also a few some metres away from any illegal movement we saw on the other side,” he recalls. “We all made it a point to shoot far away, but visibility was never that good during those winter nights. Still, I don’t think I ever killed anyone,” he adds.
Those questions still come to his head to this day, 16 years later. But they no longer dominate his thoughts. Now, at 38, Bhandari has found a sense of solitude. He serves the Army as an athletics coach at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. More importantly, his mind is occupied in devising the training sessions for his three students — Nitendra Singh Rawat, T Gopi and Kheta Ram — all of whom have qualified for the marathon at the Rio Olympics.
The last time three Indian men qualified for the marathon of the quadrennial event was back in 1960, at Rome. Since then the country has struggled to put forward runners to compete in the 42.195 km race at the Olympics. But Bhandari has brought up three in one go.
Rawat had already qualified for Rio when he beat the 2:19 qualification time at the World Military Games in October. And at the Mumbai Marathon over the weekend, the 29-year-old established a new course record, beating the legendary Ram Singh Yadav’s 2:16:59. Gopi too beat the qualification mark in what was his debut marathon, and so did Ram.
Bhandari explains the proud walk he boasted as soon as he saw his students cross the finish line. The trio had done well for themselves, but at the same time, they had lifted a heavy burden off their coach’s shoulders. “Some people keep saying that just because I’m an Olympian doesn’t mean I can be a good coach. The boys have proven them wrong,” he mentions.
After spending three years in Kashmir, the Subedar of the Garhwal regiment who had joined the army on general quota, decided to switch to the services’ sports programme, and took to running the 5,000 and 10,000 metre events. In fact, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bhandari set the national record in the latter event, clocking 28:02 — a mark that still hasn’t been beaten.
Now that his students have qualified for the Olympic Games, he looks back at his own life and finds that he was always meant to be associated with athletics. Hailing from Ghandiyal village, situated 2,200 metres above sea level in Uttarakhand, the geography did well to mould his body to support athletics.
“We had to walk at least 10 km up and down hill to reach school. Sometimes I used to get late, so I had to run to be on time. Steadily the lungs also got big so the stamina improved,” he says.
But just a year after he set his still unbeaten record, his own running career was cut short because of stress fractures on both his ankles. “It was disappointing because I never got to hit my peak. I was forced to retire but the sport was all I knew. So I got into coaching,” he states.
Another three years spent at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala, Bhandari became a certified coach and was posted back to the Army Sports Institute in Pune in 2012, where his own running career started.
Incidentally, his first students were Rawat, Gopi and Ram, along with Naveen Kumar — the 3000 metre steeplechase bronze medallist at the 2014 Asian Games.
It’s a strong bond he shares with his students. “It goes beyond the coach-student barrier. We’re actually good friends,” he asserts. “I’m still a recent athlete. I’m 38 and Ram, who is the eldest is 33. So there isn’t much of a generation gap. That way they don’t fear me like they’d fear elder coaches. They treat me like a peer and that helps me understand and help them better,” he adds.
The trio, like their master before them were also once 5,000 and 10,000 metre runners. Soon though, they decided to make the switch to marathon running. In Bhandari however, they found a comfortable mentor to work with.
Now that the three have qualified for the Olympics, Bhandari has found himself running short of time to contemplate the questions that poked his mind. Before the run in Mumbai, he trained the trio at the high altitude facility in Ooty for five months. “We’re going to continue training here till March, which is what was earlier agreed upon. After that we’ll have to figure something else out,” he explains.