Suraj Panwar knows of his father only from the stories his mother, Poonam told him. A few months after he was born, Suraj’s father Udai Singh Panwar and two other forest guards were killed by the forest mafia near Dehradun. His father never got to see his son walk for the first time. And so on Tuesday, when 18-year-old Suraj became the only Indian athlete to finish on the podium with a silver medal in the men’s 5,000 m race walk in the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, it was a gift to his family.
“I was less than six months old when my father was killed along with two other forest guards in the Mohand area in the Asarodi Range in Dehradun. He did not even get a chance to see me walking for the first time and, if he would have been alive, this medal would have been the happiest moment in his life,” he said. “I wanted to win a medal for India and this medal is the biggest gift for my family too.”
Suraj, who finished with a combined time of 40 minutes and 59.17 seconds to finish behind Ecuador’s Oscar Patin of Ecuador, who had a combined timing of 40 minutes and 51.86 seconds, also recalls the struggle leading up to the silver finish. The youngest of three sons of Udai Singh initially started with PT shoes and competed the Youth Olympics with a second-hand pair of shoes given by Olympian Manish Singh Rawat.
“Since my father was a non-contract employee and my mother had not completed even primary education, she works in the forest department nursery. She could not even afford to buy me a new pair of race walking shoes and before I came here. Manish Rawat bhai gave me one of his old pair of shoes, with which he competed in Commonwealth Games. It was bit bigger in size but I wore an extra pair of socks to make it tight,” he said.
While his mother worked at the nursery, a young Suraj would spend time racing with friends at his village Kaarabari and would walk to his school in the neighbouring village of Jhewardi. The youngster would watch village and school competitions with interest before the school PT teacher Vikas Yadav encouraged him into athletics in 2014.
After competing in sprint races initially, Suraj was selected for long distance competitions at the school level and two years later, was selected for the Maharana Pratap Sports College, Dehradun. “The only mode of transport for me to go to school was by walking and most of the time, I would walk in a hurry so I was not late for school. When I started competing in race events, my mother would get me PT shoes, which cost Rs 220,” he said.
“Zyada events main bhag leta tha toh joote fat jate the. Mummy fir bhi paise bacha ke mujhe joote le deti (The shoes would tear when I competed in many events. Even then, my mother would save money and buy me shoes). When I was selected for Maharana Pratap Sports College in 2016, I shared a room on rent with two students,” he said.
His older brothers pitched in too. While Neeraj got a hotel job in Jaipur to support me, oldest brother Shubham supported with Arvind Pant and Abhishek Chaudhary from his village, helped him buy tracksuits. “After winning the gold medal in Coimbatore, I was inducted in the sports excellence programme which meant that I had a hostel room and a proper diet, which was a huge boost for me,” he said. The gold medal in the 5,000 m race walk event in the U-16 category with a timing of 22 minutes and 37.37 seconds in the 32nd Junior National Championships in Coimbatore was followed by a silver medal in 10,000 m race walk event in Youth National Athletics Championship in Hyderabad, where Panwar clocked 45 minutes and 35.47 seconds.
Last year, Panwar won the bronze medal in the 10,000 m walk in the Junior National Athletics Championship in Vijaywada and this year, he won the gold medal in 1,000 m race walk event in U-20 category in Junior Federation Cup in April before winning the silver medal in Asian Qualification meet in Bangkok.
Suraj’s coach, Anoop Bisht (38) says determination is his biggest strength. “When he first came to me, he did not know even basics of race walking. For more than two months, we taught him about creeping and bending techniques and he would listen and try it for hours. Unlike other events, race walking needs more technical knowledge and he would also read books on it,” he said. “Whatever shoes he wears, whether second hand or old, he tried to give his best. And that has been his biggest strength.”
At the Panwar home in Kaarabari, mother Poonam and brothers Shubham and Neeraj are preparing for Suraj’s arrival. “Suraj has not come home to spend a day for a year now except for two hours last month. Whenever we ask, he says he will give us an opportunity to welcome him in a grand manner. This medal is the biggest of his career and I have promised him a new pair of shoes,” said Neeraj.
Suraj though has other demand. “Since I used to stay away due to training, there is no picture of all the family members. When I return, I will ask them for one family picture with the medal,” he said.