Long distance runner Sudha Singh, who was picked for the Padma Shri in the 2021 honours’ list, is so fiercely focussed on her dream of winning an Olympic medal that she hasn’t visited home in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, for well over a year — and has been training in national camp.
The last time, 34-year-old Sudha, a former national 3,000 metres steeplechase record holder but is now concentrating on marathon, visited home was in December 2019. Mobile phone is her closest companion for keeping in touch with her family.
“They used to come to meet me. Lockdown started around March last year, and it is going to be a year to that. I last went home long before that, in December 2019. But I speak to my family daily,” Sudha told IANS in an interview from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Southern Centre, Bengaluru.
Sudha’s family used to visit her at the national camp when it was at the National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala before the coronavirus-enforced lockdown in March 2020 stopped their visits. “That has stopped because of coronavirus. I don’t really remember the last time I have seen them face to face,” she said.
To remain in touch with her family, Sudha makes do with phone calls regularly. “I speak to them daily and they used to come to meet me. Lockdown started in March and it is going to be a year to that too but I last went home long before that,” she said.
Although Sudha is now focussed on marathon, she has an enviable record in the 3,000m steeplechase. She won gold at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and at the 2017 Asian Championships in Bhubaneswar. She has also won silver at the 2011, 2017, and 2019 Asian Championships and at the 2018 Asian Games. She represented India at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was conferred the Arjuna Award in 2012.
Sudha would be 35 by the time the postponed 2020 Olympics starts on July 23 in Tokyo. Age, however, was a factor that she had defied in the recent past when she won the 3,000 steeplechase silver at the 2018 Asiad. However, steeplechase has taken a backseat, going into the Olympics and she is looking to meet the qualification mark for the marathon.
With an Olympic medal on mind, Sudha has currently set her eyes on the 42.195km New Delhi Marathon that is scheduled to take place in first week of February.
“This would be my third Olympics. I am fit, and now I just need competitions to qualify. Like other athletes, my ultimate aim is to win an Olympic medal. At the marathon, I am looking to break the national record and try and qualify with the timings. After that we will decide upon what is available for steeplechase,” said Sudha.
Punjab’s O.P. Jaisha’s two hours, 34:43 sec, set in August 2015 in Beijing while Sudha’s best timing is two hours 34:56 sec at the Mumbai Marathon on January 20, 2019. Sudha will have to improve much on her best timing to meet the Olympic qualifying mark, which is two hours 29.30 secs.
Sudha is currently training at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Southern Centre, Bengaluru. It was there that she received the news of her being included in the list for this year’s Padma Shri. Six sportspersons, including Sudha, and a coach are this year’s recipient of the honour.
“I was sitting with a few other athletes at the hostel here [on Monday] when I got the news. I never thought that I would be getting the award, because so many people apply for it,” she said.
Sudha comes from the small town of Raebareli. She had her primary school education there, and admits almost sheepishly that she was never too interested in academics.
“There was a SAI centre close by so I used to represent my school in events there. I used to win most of the time over there and so their scouts came home and told my family that I have the potential to do well in athletics,” she said.
“In 2001, I was selected for the SAI centre in Agra. I was very happy that I was being able to make my way in this field because it meant that I didn’t need to study any longer. My father was working in Industrial Telephone Industries Ltd, and he basically said since she had no interest in academics, let her do athletics,” she recalled.
Sudha was about 19, in 2006, when she started running steeplechase.
“I started out in the sport after I joined the Railways and started representing them in events. Before that I used to do long distance running. But when I started representing the Railways in competitions I was finding it difficult to get entry in long distance events. The 3,000m steeplechase was a relatively new event and there was hardly anyone taking part in it, so I decided to go for it. It took time to adjust, and in my first few races I was finishing last. But I worked my way up and in 2007 broke the national record in 3,000m steeplechase,” she said.
In 2012, Sudha was conferred the Arjuna Award. And, now, she is preparing to compete in her third Olympic Games — with an eye on the podium.