PATIALA: Avinash Sable still remembers that day like it happened yesterday. Even when the 24-year-old havildar recalls the temperature — “it’s only varying degrees of minus all the time,” — he winces. Perhaps, he is reminded of a frostbite or two. He is recounting the time when he was a serving member of the Indian Army at Siachen, one of the most readily recognisable battle zones in the world. “It was the first time I saw snow,” he chuckled. “The first day in Siachen was the most difficult as everything was new. I was a junior and did not know what to talk. It was only snowing all the time.”
A member of the 5 Mahar regiment, Sable was posted in Siachen in 2013 and 2014. The Maharashtrian (from Beed district) was understandably coy when he spoke about the work he was asked to do there. “I was an infantryman, who was posted on general duty.” After spending almost two years there, he was posted to Lalgarh Jattan, a village in Rajasthan. While in Rajasthan, Sable started taking an active interest in sports.
From 2015 to 2019, Sable served in places like Sikkim while enriching his undoubted ability in sport through the Army’s athletics programme. On Monday, at the Federation Cup in Patiala, those talents reached a new high as he rewrote his own national record in the men’s 3000m steeplechase to qualify for the upcoming World Athletics Championships in Doha in September. His earlier mark of 8:29.88 — set at the Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar in September last year — in fact broke Gopal Saini’s 37-year-old (8.30.00) mark.
The new record stands at 8:28.94. But, in a way, running past obstacles and hurdles is second nature to Sable. He literally did that to go to school. “School was six kilometres from home and since there was no road... I used to run or walk to school every day from Class I,” he said.
How did steeplechase happen for Sable, a soldier who did not know what steeplechase was till 2015? Army coach, Amrish Singh, picks up the story. “After coming from Siachen, he started taking part in cross-country competitions,” Singh said. “I spotted him in a cross-country event in Hyderabad in January 2017, where he had finished inside the top 10. I thought he had good endurance technique so we picked him up.”
Singh also asked him to become a steeplechaser. So he raced in this discipline for the first time at the 2017 edition of the Federation Cup where he finished fifth with a time of 9:06.42. At the Open Nationals in Chennai in September 2017, Sable progressed further to finish first with a time of 8:39.81.
Having already established his credentials as one of India’s best, he was set for phase two in the developmental process. But injuries cut it short. Singh blamed former foreign national middle-and-long distance coach Nikolai Snesarev for that. “Nicolai is a good coach but I think he overworked Sable, who refused to run because of the load. (it should be noted here that Sable broke the record last year when he was training under Snesarev). Singh got on a salvage mission when Sable came to him, with his mind and body broke, in October 2018 (he missed the Asian Games due to injury).
“He came to us in Bengaluru... he had little strength, moderate endurance and good speed. So for the first three months, we did not let him run fast. We worked on his strength (box jumps) and slowly increased his pace. After that, we went to Ooty for altitude training.” Free of injuries and mind at peace, Sable smashed his own record on Monday. While he, like every other athlete, has Olympic level dreams, he puts a rider. “If Army calls me, I will go back. It’s my duty.”
Gopi seals WC berth in Seoul
India’s Asian marathon champion Gopi Thonakal has qualified for the World Athletics Championships to be held in Doha in September-October after finishing 11th in the Seoul International Marathon. The 30-year-old Gopi clocked his personal best time of 2 hours 13 minutes 39 seconds in the marathon race on Sunday, bettering the World Championships qualification mark of 2:16:00. His earlier best was 2:15:16 last year. Gopi’s time is the second best ever by an Indian after the four-decade old national record of 2:12:00, which is held by Shivnath Singh. Seoul International Marathon is a world-class IAAF Gold label event. Gopi won the Asian marathon title in China in 2017.