Babar’s runaway success8 min read . Updated: 14 Mar 2016, 01:03 AM IST
She grew up in the drought-ridden district of Satara. Now she is headed for her first Olympics
She grew up in the drought-ridden district of Satara. Now she is headed for her first Olympics
Lalita Babar’s days now involve insanely early mornings, hours and hours of training, running, and leaping over obstacles. But that’s the easy part.
Born in Mohi village in Maharashtra’s Satara district, one of the worst-hit drought areas in the country, Babar grew up battling the conditions and the constant scarcity of water and money. Running was her way out.
The 26-year-old has worked tirelessly not only to alleviate her family’s problems, but also to raise the bar in Indian athletics. Babar qualified for the Rio Olympics, which start in August, by bagging gold in the 3,000m steeplechase at the Asian Athletics Championships in Wuhan, China, in June 2015. She put her village on the athletics map when she lined up for the 3,000m steeplechase finals at the International Association of Athletics Federations (Iaaf) World Championships in Beijing, China, last August, the first Indian woman to do so.
Here’s Babar’s journey, in her own words. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How is the training for the Olympics going?
It’s going well. We have been doing high-altitude training in Ooty since the (Iaaf) World Championships. I have qualified for marathon and steeplechase, but I have chosen to participate in steeplechase and managed to convince my coach (Nikolai Snesarev) of it too. So the training is solely focused on steeplechase now. We work a minimum of 7-8 hours every day, about three-and-a-half hours in the morning and about the same in the evening. We start training at 4.30 in the morning. Since steeplechase is a technical event, I have to work on each of the components separately too. There is a lot of repetition work, and I have to work on speed for the 3km run.
You are used to a life of hard work...
Yes, it is a tough life in the village. The place where I come from is drought-ridden. We are a joint family; there were about 17 members living in the house, and the whole family was dependent on farming. I had to go to school, work with the family and also try to take part in sports. I went there last month, and it is very difficult. There is not even enough water to drink. It is okay if someone in the family has a job. But otherwise there is nothing that the farmers, who depend solely on the crop, can do. My younger sister works in the police, but she is married. So I am the only employed member of the family currently. I have to look after them because there is nothing growing right now.
How did you get into sports and athletics?
I used to play kho-kho earlier, but started athletics in 2002. There was absolutely no awareness of sport in the village. Even the PT (physical training) teachers knew little. I used to run just for the sake of it; on bad roads, barefoot. There was nothing like a sports day in school. But kho-kho is a team game; there are always a few people playing favourites. You can do as much as you can, but if the rest don’t put in the effort and perform, it comes to nothing. That’s why I turned to athletics, because it is an individual sport and the work that you put in translates into success. Also, when I started running I knew I had stamina and talent and could do well in it.
Was your family supportive of your decision to take it up as a career?
People in the village were reluctant to let girls do sports, especially if you had to travel for competitions. But my family always supported me. My uncle is a little educated and he was interested in sports, so he used to encourage me and come with me for tournaments.
Money was also a problem. There used to be events in the villages nearby, about 3- to 5-km runs, which had some prize money. My philosophy was that if I am working that hard, and battling the conditions at home, there needs to be some reward at the end of it. I had to take into account that if my family is spending the little money they have to send me out for competitions, I need to pay them back with something.
Do you remember your first pay cheque?
My first big pay cheque was for ₹ 10,000. I won a 10km race held in Solapur in 2004, which was held in honour of an MLA’s birthday. I started running marathons (not full distance) because they used to pay. I realized that if I worked at it, I could make it into a career. I also got a job in 2006 in the Railways through the sports quota.
Does athletics pay enough for youngsters to pursue it as a career?
Marathons have helped a lot financially. In athletics, if you do well in international meets like the Asian Games or Commonwealth Games, the government pays you. But there are no rewards for national competitions. Marathon prize money gives that financial support because no other athletics event in India currently pays you well. Indians don’t value their athletes as much. Which is why the infrastructure hasn’t developed. This despite the fact that so many athletes have qualified for the Olympics, and our timings are constantly improving.
How was the leap to the international stage?
My first international competition was in 2009. I took part in the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam in the 3,000m and was placed eighth. I was very young at the time, 20 years old, and had competed mostly in junior tournaments before that. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never taken a flight before, and suddenly participating with international athletes was a little intimidating.
English was a problem. I didn’t know it well and didn’t know how to communicate with anyone without it. I was worried about how I would do there. But with each outing I have gained more confidence. We are also not as fussed about food now. The first few times that I competed internationally, I used to carry food packets. But now my diet is mainly boiled vegetables, chicken or fish. No oil, no spice. You get that pretty much everywhere around the world.
You started off as a middle-distance runner. What made you graduate to a marathon and how was that first marathon run?
I had always wanted to run a marathon because it is the biggest test of endurance in athletics. My first full marathon was in 2012 in Mumbai. And I won it in 2013 and 2014 also. Mental preparation is very important for a marathon; you also need to condition your body. You need to practise for at least 32km. At the time when I was training for the marathon, the weekly mileage used to be 210km. But doing the full race was a great experience, especially achieving it in the biggest marathon in the country, though my legs were all swollen after completing the race. It was also interesting to interact with some of the elite athletes. Most of them are from Kenya and Ethiopia, and they have a generation of great runners.
As you spoke of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes, is there a general feeling among Indian athletes that they don’t quite match up to their foreign counterparts?
Earlier, I used to think I could not compete against them; that they are way too good. Genetically they are better built for this sport, and no matter how hard we work, it is very difficult to match up to that. We can only maximize our potential. Since Snesarev took over, in 2014, he has been building us for international competitions. He stresses on looking at the international athletes and how we can battle against them.
Could you talk a little about Snesarev and the impact he’s had on the Indian athletics scene.
I was working with him in 2009-10. And since he has returned in 2014, I have been working with him. We are here, giving a good performance, because of him. We have improved a lot since he took over. Yes, he is very strict, but if the coach is not strict we might also slack off. Sports need that discipline and commitment; you can’t achieve anything without that. And he gets the best out of us. My standard of performance has improved greatly since he took over. He has the experience and expertise. In six months since I started training with him in 2014, I was able to bring back a medal at the Asian Games. I had been running for almost five years before that without much success.
Why did you make the jump to steeplechase?
I started doing steeplechase in 2014. In 2010, I had practised steeplechase for 10 days; after that I always wanted to do it. My goal is to do all the events competitively before I retire. So, in 2014, I told the coach that I would prefer to do steeplechase rather than marathon. I really liked doing it. When I had practised for 10 days, I knew I would be good at it. In events like the 10K or marathon, it’s running on a plain surface. Steeplechase is more technical. You have to think about strategies—how to cross the hurdles most effectively, the water jumps. After running a marathon, you can relax a little. But steeplechase needs constant attention to technique.
What was it like qualifying for the Olympics at the Asian Athletics Championships in Wuhan, and doing it with a national record?
It wasn’t just a national record, I broke the championship record too (9:34.13). The way I had practised, I was expecting that time, or even better. It was only my second steeplechase competition so maybe that also affected the timing. The 2014 Asian Games (where she won a silver medal) was the first time that I did steeplechase. It was a little scary. But with practice, the coach has driven away all that fear.
And how far off are you from making a medal run on the world stage?
At the (Iaaf) World Championship, I brought my personal best down to 9:29.64 to finish in eighth place. It’s not a bad effort, but we are targeting a time of about 9.08-9:10. The world record for steeplechase is currently at 8:58 (held by Russia’s Gulnara Samitova-Galkina), but the 9:08 mark could potentially bring a medal.