Reluctant trainee to race-walking qualifier for Paris Olympics clocking 1:19.55, Akshdeep Singh, 23, has come a long way

As a kid growing up in Kahne Ke Village in Barnala district of Punjab, Akshdeep Singh often practiced running around the two-acre farm owned by his father Gurjant Singh to pursue his dream of getting enrolled in the Indian Army from the recruitment drives at Bathinda.

Singh became a race-walker in subsequent seasons and joined Indian Navy last year under the sports quota. On Tuesday, the 23-year-old became one of two Indian athletes, alongwith Priyanka Goswami, to bag the first qualifying berths for Paris Olympics with a new national record of one hour and 19.55 minutes in the men’s 20 km race walk event at the Tenth Indian Open Race Walking Championship at Ranchi.

“My father owns a two-acre farm in our village and my aim was to get enrolled in the army as a soldier and support my family. Seeing the elder village youth train for the recruitment drives, I spent my time running around the farm and later at the nearby stadium in an effort to prepare myself for the coming years. After making the national record today, I told my father about qualifying for the Paris Olympics and the first thing he asked me was, “Paise da arrangement karna hai tan das di (if you want money then tell me),” shared Singh while speaking with The Indian Express.

Singh’s interest in running grew with village youths passing his home in the morning to train in the fields or along the road to the nearby town of Barnala. The youngster would train for 800m races at the village apart from undertaking the 30-minute bus journey to the Baba Kehar Singh Stadium in Barnala. It was the transfer of his initial coach Jaspreet Singh that led to the Punjab youngster going to Patiala to train as an athlete. With his coach suggesting he train under former race walk national champion and coach Gurdev Singh, the youngster faced the dilemma of training as a runner or race walker.

“Kadhi kise nu eh khed karde dekhya hi nahi si (I had never watched any one competing in a race walk ever). When coach Gurdev Singh told me to train as a race walker in 2016, I did not even train with full effort for a month or so. I was fascinated by races and could not imagine myself walking,” remembers Singh.

Gurdev Singh, who has coached the likes of KT Irfan, who finished tenth in the London Olympics, was impressed by Singh’s natural walking action and persisted with training the youngster in race walk. While the veteran coach made Singh train for one-hour training sessions initially, the training sessions increased as well as his trainee’s willingness to continue in the discipline. “When I made Akshdeep give the race walk trials, I was impressed by the balance of his heel kick. For close to two months, he did not show his willingness but when he met some of the seniors and other athletes in the camp, his interest grew. His posture was good for race walking but we had to gradually work on the placement of knee and heel on the track as his muscles were trained for running. Slowly we made him run on the road and would increase the distance to 30-40 kms during one training session,” says Gurdev.

Singh won a silver medal in the U-18 Junior Nationals in Vijayawada with a timing of 43.35 minutes within an year of training and followed the medal with a silver in All India Inter-university the same year. In 2018, Singh clocked his first sub 43-minute timing of 42.36 minutes and won the bronze in 10km race walk in the Junior Federation Cup at Coimbatore. The youngster missed his chance to compete in Junior Asian Championship but made a new junior national record of 44.791 in 10 Km race walk event in Ranchi the same year.

In 2019, the youngster suffered a knee injury which kept him out for ten months, which also meant that he missed the World University Games in Italy. “The first race walk shoe I bought was for Rs 4500 and the shoes would break after 2-3 months. My father and mother would save whatever money they could and my coaches and seniors too helped me. When I broke the new junior national record, I had my passport made. Injury de karan passport bina kise vise di stamp toh reh gaya (Due to injury, my chance to get a visa stamp on passport remained unfulfilled,)” says Singh.

A Khelo India Scholarship kept his training needs fulfilled to some extent and the youngster competed in his first senior competition in 2020 where he gave his personal best 20 km race walk timing of one hour and 26.12 minutes to finish 11th in Eighth Indian Open Race Walking Competition in Ranchi days before Covid-19 lockdown.

The last two years have seen him making a new Khelo India University games record as well a bronze medal in National Games and a silver in Open Nationals in Bengaluru. Singh has also been training under Russian coach Tatyana Sibileva at Bengaluru. At the last Asian Games, the men’s 20 km race walk title went at the timing of one hour and 22.04 minutes and Singh believes that he can win a medal despite Chinese runners being in familiar territory.

Committing fewest fouls

“Race walking is all about committing less fouls and getting the technique perfect. Coach Tatyana has made us focus on hip and knee exercises and posture to make contact with the track as straight and maintain contact with track during all the times. She has made us train for long steps and a fast heel kick to make the heel balance. During my time at the village in lockdown, I also saw videos of world leader Perseus Karlstrom of Sweden, 2012 Olympic champion Chen Ding and 2016 Olympic champion Wang Zhen of China to observe their technique,” said Singh, who now works as a petty officer with the Indian Navy.

As for his village, Singh knows how the village will celebrate his feat of qualifying for the Paris Olympics. “My village is very proud of me and racewalking. Whenever there is a kabaddi mela at the village or nearby villages, they invite me to demonstrate race walking in the field so that more and more kids know about the sport. Jad sari duniya de samne chal kaiya fer pind de samne chalan di ki sharam (When I have walked in front of the world, why should I hesitate in walking in front of village kids),” says Singh.

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