Competitive sport allows the character of a participant to come through. Avinash Sable’s spirited run in the men’s 3000m steeplechase final showed us the fire inside him, like a glowing flame lighting up a dark path. For seven-and-a-half laps around the Birmingham’s Alexander stadium track, he ran like the wind en route to a personal best time.
The silver medal behind Kenyan Abraham Kibiwot is rewarded for a lung-bursting effort. More importantly, the army runner ran with a mission to give everything he had for India, in doing so displayed passion and persistence packed in a wiry frame.
The second place at the Commonwealth Games 2022 was Sable’s first podium finish in this competition and it attracted widespread appreciation, from fellow athletes to celebrities. In doing so, he showed us that by trying to run faster at every big opportunity in the India vest, a sportsperson can lift the national mood doing little things he knows best. When each one of us follow in those footsteps, attempt to do our best in whatever we are trained for, India gets a boost. The steeplechaser tackled the obstacle course as if his life depended on it, chased three Kenyans in a display of supreme self-belief, and returned a career best 8:11.20.
The silver medal effort was below the current CWG record (8:10.08 set in 2016 Gold Coast), Kibiwot’s winning time 8:11.15 is also slower than the Games mark. Sable’s focus is on running against his own internal clock, catching up with faster opponents in pursuit of Personal Best (PB) almost each time he steps on track.
The 27-year-old army runner improved upon his own steeplechase timing for the ninth time, bettering the 8:12.48 clocked at IAAF Diamond League 2022 series at Rabat (Morocco). He was fifth in that race, behind big names like Olympic champion Souflane El Bakkali.
Like most long-distance runners, the CWG silver medallist is an introvert, conserving energy for action on track and yet to grasp the demand on time celebrity athletes need to create and feed a frenzy for instant news.
“Avinash is changing since he travelled to Colorado Springs before the World Championship (preparations under Scott Simmons from US). He greets fellow runners from foreign countries and tries to chat,” observed Ramadhar Yadav, in charge of scouting and athlete performance at JSW Sports. “Confidence rises with international performances.”
Yadav travelled to Oregon for the World’s and watched the Birmingham race from here. “The potential to reduce timing below 8:11 is there, going by his Diamond Series and CWG runs. Avinash covered more than 3000m distance at the World Athletics, choosing to run in the second lane to avoid the crowd forming in the lead pack, yet had the energy to complete the race,” said the talent scout who has interacted with the steeplechaser since 2014. “After the burst to finish second at Birmingham, he had the endurance to run 50 metres more at that pace. Putting the two runs together, he can go below 8:11.”
Sable is among numerous elite athletes supported by JSW Sports, among whom is javelin star Neeraj Chopra who sat out the Birmingham meet due to a groin strain suffered at Oregon. The CWG 2022 steeplechase run is a landmark for Indian track and field, the former aimed for the gold, as revealed in post-race comments, to erase memory of an embarrassing World Athletics race, before arriving in Birmingham. He got caught in a traffic jam of runners at Hayward Field stadium, lost his running pattern to finish 11th, the time far from own expectations (11:31.75).
From a state of virtual depression on return to training base at Colorado, the Indian vowed to make amends at CWG, come what may.
Three Kenyans teaming up in front of Sable got almost run over by an express train steaming past them. Running as if tackling an assault course in army uniform rather than an obstacle race around an athletic track, maniac energy propelled him past Cornelius Kipruto as if he did not exist, strode past Amos Serem and then lined up Kibiwot in his sights. The silver medal instead of a first-time CWG gold eluded him, but by then Sable had etched his name in CWG history.
The CWG Personal Best is a chip on his shoulder, making the Kenyan, Ethiopian distance runners and steeplechase aces from Asia aware of the distance travelled by a gritty runner whose regret at Birmingham was missing out on the gold.
Sable was hopeful of the national anthem played at the medal ceremony, the ambition will have to wait. “Running outside India will be helpful in recovery, a key element in distance running. Weather makes a difference in recovery, training partners are superior, distractions like mobiles reduce due to connectivity issues at altitude,” noted Yadav.
PBs earlier by the steeplechaser-cum-soldier, toughened by growing up in Beed (Maharashtra), armed forces training (Mahar Regiment) as a non-sports quota recruit, included three timings which did not fetch any medals, only a personal high. Doha World Athletics 2019 was his debut appearance (8:25.25 heats, 8:21.35 finals), Tokyo Olympics 2021 (8:18.12 heats), this year the Diamond League in Morocco and now the PB during the Birmingham burst to the tape. The race highlights will keep reminding us about a wiry Indian able to make a nation hold its collective breath.
Sable has not elaborated the mindset which goes into bettering PBs at major meets, a quality which sets him apart from track & field stars in other disciplines. Yadav, the talent scout and travel companion, refers to untapped potential.
Maybe the first four years of military training since signing up in search of a livelihood, is bringing out the daredevil in him. Sable discovered the joy of running later in life, can slip under the radar anywhere during competition, till the steeplechase starts and he slips into a rhythm like a runaway train.
The 5000m is his favourite event, he holds the national record. The Kenyans know Sable’s hunger to run faster is limitless, so will keep a hawk eye on this Indian from Beed, as tough mentally as any of those long-limbed running machines from Rift Valley. Medals in international meets will happen when a PB is special. Back in India with the young and old getting a kick out of long-distance running, getting inspired by the 27-year-old runner to aim for PBs in every aspect of life can be life changing.