When he was young, Eabad Ali, who won the bronze medal for windsurfing at the Asian Games, wanted to run like his idol Milkha Singh. Milkha was from the EME (Electrical & Mechanical Engineers) wing of the Indian army; Ali too enrolled in the same division and is now a havaldar. Milkha ran like the wind, Ali sways like the wind over the water. “I saw the event like running on the water with the huge canvas and the board,” the 29-year old Ali tells The Indian Express from China, fresh after winning the medal at the windsurfing RS:X event at the NBX sailing centre in Ningbo.
“To win a medal like Milkha sir in the Asian Games is like a dream come true for me and my whole family including the Indian Army,” says an emotional Ali, who hails from the Unchegaon in Ayodhya district in Uttar Pradesh “Like my idol, I also got posted in EME, Bhopal. Indian Army join karne se pehle bhi sirf daudne ka patha tha. Aur jab join ki, tab bhi daudna hi chahta tha. (Before I joined the Indian Army,I only knew about running and when I joined the Indian Army, my interest was in running).”
Things would turn in 2015 at Bhopal when his success in the selection trials in sailing led him to training in the windsurfing event under the tutelage of Lt Col Ashutosh Tripathi. Ali would still train for his marathons due to his peak stamina and endurance, and the coaches would train him to use it instead for sailing. Ali’s first windsurfer board measured 286 cm in length and 96 cm in width, he remembers, and weighed more than 19 kg.
“Initially I would fall too many times but once I got hold of it, we started training more for it. When Lt Col Ashutosh Tripathi chose me for windsurfing in the trials in 2015, I saw the event like running on the water with the huge canvas and the board. But the main challenge was to balance the board and sail in the water and to judge the speed of the wind and water. My initial training in running meant that I had built good stamina and endurance levels.” remembers Ali.
While running required him to train for thigh and upper body muscles, the requirements in the windsurfing event were quite different. With the RS:X having a daggerboard or keel along with the board resisting the water, it meant that Ali had to develop his whole body for the event.
Col NS Johal, his Commanding Officer of Army Yachting Node, and a 2008 Olympian, develops the theme further.
“Windsurfing does not use much of the normal usage of muscles required for running or walking. You will not see a bodybuilder or a wrestler or a marathoner balancing the board well. It takes some time to strengthen the tendon muscles and then work needs to be done to build the forearms, shoulders, thigh and core body muscles in windsurfing,” Johal adds, “Since this is the only event where pumping (moving the sail in or out not in response to wind gusts, waves or winds) is allowed, windsurfing required more power in the forearms, shoulders and VO2 max (the maximum rate of oxygen the body is able to use during exercise). So we had to work on these for Ali and other windsurfers,” Johal tells this newspaper. In 2017, Ali had shifted to Mumbai and started training under Col NS Johal and other officers and coaches at the centre.
While he won his first national medal in 2017, his first international appearance was in Asian Championships in Oman in 2021 where he finished fifth. Last year, Ali won the bronze medal in the Asian Championships in Abu Dhabi, a motivating force, he says, behind Tuesday’s success.
“At the Army Yachting Node, we train in water for more than six hours. Training with international standards of boards meant that we learnt and mastered the skills for sailing in the rules required. We train for more than two hours for running and on a rowing machine daily to be ready for the 12-14 races in an international competition,” says Ali.
On Tuesday, Ali finished fourth in the 13th race before finishing second in the last race. It meant that he finished with a net score of 52 with the top finishes getting less number of points and the sailor with the least amount of points winning. South Korean Cho Wowoo won the gold with a net score of 13 points while Thai Natthaphong Phonoppharat claimed the silver with 29 points.
Ali’s coach subedar Prakash Alexander explains the challenges of the event in China. “Unlike Oman and Abu Dhabi, where the water current was slow, here in China the water current was faster. We all had trained in Thailand and Korea prior to coming to China and we also came here 15 days prior to the event. If the current is fast, then one has to pump more with more force and when the tide is low, one has to make use of downwind to propel ahead. The winds here ranged from 4 knots to 12 knots and made it challenging. It’s all about finding the right spot of wind and current in the course ahead of the competitors and Ali adjusted well to the conditions,” says the coach.
While the RS event will not be held in Paris Olympics – it started in 2008 and made its last appearance at the last Tokyo Olympics, it will be replaced by iQFOiL event where the hydrofoils will replace the daggerboard or keel present in RS: X. The less resistance of the hydrofoil to the water makes it easier for the surfer to reach the mark but it also means more balance and focus in effort to achieve speeds.
In China, Ali did not score points in second and third race as he fell behind initially due to weak winds, but is ready for the category change as well and hopes to improve to qualify for Paris.
“I idolise the two-time Olympic champion Dorian Rijsselberghe of the Netherlands in this category. I often watch his videos to learn about his balancing techniques. The iQFOil event is comparatively the same event with lesser contact with water and training more on such boats will help us master the required technique and balance.” For a boy who wanted to run on land, it’s the water world that has ushered him to glory as an adult.