A little while after she won the 3000m steeplechase at the Federation Cup with a new national record of 13:27:09 seconds, Lalita Babar went to a trackside volunteer and asked for a few bottles of water. Babar was merely a bit thirsty but the volunteer joked whether she would be taking some back home.
Babar laughed for there was little malice in the jest. There may have been a bit of truth though. The athlete after all hails from Mohi village in the Man taluk of Maharashtra’s Satara district, one of the worst affected by the recent drought in the state.
“I have heard that the government is sending a water tanker for the village and my family has dug a borewell that helps us to get our drinking water needs. But it is difficult to manage,” says Babar.
The problem isn’t a new one though. “My taluk has always had a problem of drought. When I was younger I would have to cycle to fetch water for my family and I would sometimes have to go down wells to get it because the water level was so low,” she says.
Those days are long gone for the 26-year-old. “I have been a member of national camps for many years now and I have only been home once in the last two years. My parents don’t talk to me about the problems they face because they want me to focus on my career. They want me to do well at the Olympics,” she says.
Indeed Babar is one of India’s brightest prospects on the track at the Rio Games. Her mark on Friday broke the national record she herself had set at the 2015 Beijing World Championships when she had finished eighth in the final after leading for a significant portion of the race. Her Federation Cup mark was infact the fourth time she had set a national record, a streak that began at the 2014 Asian Games. Babar, though, says the record was entirely unexpected. Post her effort at the Bird’s Nest Stadium last year, she had not been competing on the track, focusing instead on marathons which coach Nikolai Snesarev reckons would boost her endurance for the track event.
At last year’s Kolkata 25km race, she had picked up an injury that was aggravated at the Mumbai marathon this year. She had only started training on the track again in February and with any level of consistency even more recently. All this makes her record even more remarkable.
“I have only being training continuously for the last 15 days. Even my coach wasn’t expecting me to do well,”said Babar after the race.
Babar who had already qualified for the Olympics at the World Championships last year was expecting to run a time in the 9:45:00 range. She thus decided to let compatriot Sudha Singh take the lead early on. “Sudha had not qualified for the Olympics yet, but she had been training for the last three-four months. Because I did not have that much practice, I didn’t want to set a pace that would not be enough for her to qualify for the Olympics,” says Babar.
But while Sudha took the lead, the gap was never particularly wide. Indeed with two laps to go, coach Snesarev started yelling at Babar. “He started saying I could get the national record and had to push myself,” says Babar whose finishing kick in the last 300 meters propelled her past Sudha and to another national record.
While she is satisfied with the record, she knows there is a long way to go. “I have to finish in around 9 minutes and 15 seconds to have a better result than eighth. The medals come around 9 minutes and 10 seconds but if I have a good day then 9:15 might win me a medal,” she says.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines