CHENNAI: Amidst all the hustle and bustle in the competitive world of sports, people often forget that athletes are humans. Also that the AmidstKT Irfan couldn’t have been happier on Saturday, as he raced to the finish line with both hands held up in the air, letting out a cry of relief and frustration after what had been a difficult 2018 for him.
While gold at the sixth Open National Race Walking Championships was something that the London Olympian was looking forward to, deep down, there was something else that he wanted more. “It’s been four months since I’ve seen my son. He is only two years old. I can’t wait to go back. But unfortunately, that won’t happen. Maybe sometime soon.”
Those dear to him are happiest when there is a positive reaction for his displays from the country and media. That was the case after he won in Chennai, despite him not meeting the qualification mark for World Championships in September. But it was the opposite last year. The 29-year-old had to go through a tough phase last April, when he was sent home from the Commonwealth Games after authorities discovered a syringe in his room. The walker from Malappuram district (Kerala) himself acknowledged that 2018 was one of the worst years in his professional life, and thanked his close ones for helping him make it through that time.
“You know the kind of people in our place. They are just waiting for negative news. But I didn’t care about all that and ignored them. As long as those close to me did not believe all that, I didn’t care. My family and friends knew that I wouldn’t do such things. That was enough for me.”
Despite the 2018 lows, Irfan feels that he has faced harsher times. After shattering the national record with a timing of 1:20:21s at London Olympics, he was thrust into the spotlight. The glare was intense, considering his middle-class roots and burgeoning Olympic-medal expectations thrust upon his shoulders.
But Irfan’s nadir arrived in 2014: a stress fracture that kept him out for almost two years. “That was a turning point in my career. It cost me Rio Olympics. Post-treatment, I have never been able to match my best time. The closest I came to London was at the 2017 Asian Race Walking Championship. I won bronze with 01:20:59s. But I feel I can do better.”
As far as Irfan’s training regimen is concerned, there haven’t been drastic changes. But that loss-of-contact disqualification at the 2018 Asiad (all top Indian race walkers endured the same fate) has seen the introduction of minor technical tweaks. He is yet to hit peak fitness, but distance covered has also been increased. “In Patiala and Bengaluru, we did practice races for 30-36km. That is longer than what we used to. I can already see the benefits of that.”
Men’s 20km: 1. KT Irfan 1:26:18, 2. Devender Singh 1:26:19, 3. Sandeep Kumar 1:26:19. Women’s 20km: 1. Soumya B 1:40:25, 2. Priyankam 1:41:20, 3. Ravina: 1:41:46.