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Walking to glory

S.Pavani's gold in the 20 km race at the National Walking Championship will inspire the State participant to aim for further medals at the National Games.



SMILE OF SUCCESS: S. Pavani — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

SHE SEEMS to be destined to walk to glory. For, even as the entire focus was on the Hyderabad edition of the National Games, an 18-year-old, unassuming S. Pavani quietly walked away, literally, with the gold in the 20 km race in the National Walking Championship held in Pune recently. It might be a little bit surprising to know that a National Games event was already held in Pune. The matter of fact is that since there is no scope for the mandatory gap of six weeks between the National walking championship and the Hyderabad National Games, the Indian Olympic Association had decided to treat the walking events as part of the Games. For this reason, Pavani is neither presented a medal nor a certificate in Pune. She will be duly honoured during the athletic events at the GMC Balayogi Stadium in Gachibowli. Sadly, there will be no victory lap in front of the home crowd which any athlete would love to perform after a gold medal winning feat! "Yes, I really miss that rare opportunity,'' Pavani admits.

Well, the sterling performance in Pune during which she left the more familiar names way behind truly reflected her grit and tenacity. For, not many will be aware that she was fouled and pulled out of the 10 km race in a national event in Chandigarh only 15 days before this meet. The reason - she failed to keep `contact' between her feet and the ground or to put it simply, this 163 cm tall athlete gave the impression of running rather than walking. Consequently, her morale was down for this incident happened so close to the Pune event. But, at the same time, Pavani recalls that humiliation made her more determined to come back with a medal. "Honestly, I thought I would only finish among the top three but not certainly at the top,'' says a smiling Pavani, a second year student of Intermediate (CEC group) in Andhra Pradesh Sports School which she joined in 1994. It is pertinent to remind that when some attempts were made to change from her then pet event of 3 km to long-distance running, the then director of the School, Dr.N.Parameswara Ram, put his foot down. That was the phase when Andhra's senior most active coach of SAI, M.Ranga Rao, and later N. Ramesh (also of SAI) fine-tuned the rough edges in her walking techniques. And in hindsight, Ram was proved right for Pavani has already seven national records to her credit in different grades in walking events now.

Interestingly, Pavani was a very good handball player being a member of the bronze medal winning State squad in 1997. But, SAI athletics coach T. Srinivasa Rao, now on deputation with the Sports School, was firm that she stuck to athletics. Long hours of specialised training under him saw a sea-change in Pavani's attitude towards the sport itself. She walks almost 30 km every day to keep herself in pink of condition, with her dedicated coach following her on a scooter. More importantly, Pavani's gold in Pune event was not a sudden achievement in her career. She has been winning most of the walking events over the last six years with the most memorable being her record-breaking performance in the Federation Cup (under-20) 10 km race in Mumbai last year with a timing of 50 min, 40 seconds and the bronze in the Inter-State national meet in Lucknow last year. Incidentally, Pavani clinched the gold in her very second race in the seniors circuit.

Then, there is the story of how the selectors treat even performing individuals. Pavani had the ignominy of being dropped from the national squad at the last minute after being picked for the Junior Asian track and field meet held recently. The reason as usual was silly - that walking events were not scheduled in the ATF meet. The fact was they were indeed held there. Clearly, Pavani was denied a chance to win a medal at the Asian level because of dirty politics.

Putting behind these ugly and avoidable instances, Pavani prefers to recount her memorable Pune performance, which was watched only by her brother, P.Subrahmanyam, himself a national high-jumper and member of the State athletic squad for the National Games. She said initially she was not thinking of winning the race. "I walked along with the group of competitors in the first seven laps and on the advice of Sriram (a walker from her State), surged ahead and maintained a 50-metre distance between her and the rest in the final two laps,'' she explained. A strategy, which paid handsome dividends for quite a few familiar names like L. Deepamala Devi of Manipur and Raina Antil of Haryana were forced to settle for second and third places respectively. It is highly creditable for the Andhra girl to win the race considering the fact that of the 14 competitors only seven finished the gruelling race and some of the big names like Jasmine Kaur and Sandeep Kaur pulling out of the event after four laps.

Success brings automatic recognition while very few bother to consider the pain and agony an athlete undergoes in the initial stages. For within two days after becoming the first Andhra girl to win the National 20 km walking event, Pavani is offered a job by the South Central Railway and will be posted in the City itself. Her coach and mentor Srinivasa Rao asserts that medal in the World Cross country championship and the next Asian Games are the next targets as part of their long-term planning. It may not be impossible considering the mental toughness Pavani showed in the face of adverse selections at times and the dedication of her coach are any indication. She has certainly come a long way from being an unobtrusive child in the Sports School crowd to stand apart by virtue of her sporting achievements. K. Narsaiah, in-charge director of the Sports School now, is visibly delighted at his student's brilliant performance. "I hope this would be the beginning of a new phase in Sports School's long-term plans to tap and promote talent,'' he added.

And, what better way than to give the hosts the first gold in the National Games! A feat, which incidentally fetches her the cash incentive of Rs.3 lakhs as declared by the State Government for all gold medallists from the State in the National Games. To put it simply, Pavani gave the most perfect start to the hosts aspirations of finishing amongst the top three and it is for the other athletes to take the lead and justify the unprecedented support the State Government is extending in hosting the mega sporting event.

V.V.S

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