Lalita Babar has been going to sleep at 6.30 am India time everyday, in Ooty, this past one month. She has also been simulating steeplechase races at 6.30 pm — telling her mind it’s a 10 am start at Brazil’s Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange stadium. On Saturday, at 10 am — just like her inner clock had got used to — Babar ran a meticulously planned race that she had rehearsed a million times in her head. Clocking 9 minutes 19.76 seconds in the 3000 m steeplechase, the 26-year-old from Satara became the first Indian woman athlete in 32 years to make it to a track final at the Olympics.
That’s the first runner after the legendary P T Usha at Los Angeles in 1984.
Babar is tall, with a loping stride. The only reason India hasn’t woken up to her all these months is because she has kept a low profile while leaping over high hurdles and splashing in water — all of it to the last point of accuracy, as planned by Belarusian coach Dr Nikolai Snesarev.
Born to modest farmers in rural Maharashtra, Babar has seen a steady rise. Her latest national record — she improved by 7 seconds — came exactly a year after she raised the bar in a fifth national mark at the World Championships last August.
Babar had already marked herself as world-class when she finished 8th at the World Championships in Beijing in 2015. But in going under 9 minutes 20 seconds, she has announced her intent to challenge the best in the world.
Excellence drives this talented Indian runner, and she has consistently maintained that the biggest joy is in running alongside world-class talent.
On Friday, she finished fourth in her heats — after Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya (9:17.55), Emma Coburn of USA (9:18.12) and Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia (9:18.71), all of who ended up as automatic qualifiers. Babar finished as the next-6 top performers, even as the final became an 18-woman race, owing to all the tumbles that took place at Rio.
In what was a messy race, where people stumbled, fell, and stepped on each other in the water jump, Babar kept her poise, even after slipping once.
“I’m okay and I will race on Independence Day, that was the plan. But I know the job is not done. It’s just one part of the task completed and now the main task remains,” said the athlete.
Babar has logged thousands of kilometres in running, even after her fifth national record at Beijing last year, and has not remained content with just being India’s best. She wasn’t interested in the record today either, and instead expressed her disappointment that she could not finish in the top three.
Judging by the results today, it will be a world record final, where Ruth Jebet is expected to clock below 9 minutes. Babar had competed with Jebet at the Incheon Asiad, where she won the bronze.
“If Ruth can run faster then why can’t we,” Babar always maintained.
Though Babar was in absolute command of her speed on Saturday, she can expect a final where the pace is fast from the beginning. The long-striding Babar, quietly confident, is ready.