A life of extremes: Avinash Sable’s rise to premier steeplechase runner

The army man switched from cross country to long-distance running only in 2016 but has broken the national record four times and qualified for his maiden Games.

Most athletes start young, train harder than kids would at their age and travel to multiple competitions keeping up with a hectic itinerary, all for a shot at glory once in four years at the Olympics.

Avinash Sable, however, started much later in life.

And while most athletes took the traditional approach, the Maharashtrian's path was appreciably different. Nevertheless, Avinash Sable soldiered on and managed to find his way to the Games.

"Whatever I am today, it's because of the Indian army," he told the Times of India. "I had no sports background at all."

Hailing from the Beed district in Maharashtra, the Indian steeplechase runner grew up in a family of limited means. Both his parents were farmers and he went through a lot of hardships, even having to run six kilometres each day to get to school.

Avinash Sable made up his mind early to join the army in order to provide for his family and was recruited after finishing his 12th grade as part of the 5 Mahar regiment, being posted at Siachen and Rajasthan.

The youngster lived through both climate extremes within two years with Siachen’s temperature registering in the negative while Rajasthan’s desert swathes took it up as high 50 degrees.

Introduction to steeplechase

It was only while in 2015 that Avinash Sable learnt anything about sports running, having joined the army’s athletics programme. He was initially chosen for the cross country competitions and his talent became apparent soon.

The Indian athlete had only trained for a year but was part of the Services side that won the team competition and finished fifth in the individual National Cross Country Championship.

However, Avinash Sable suffered an injury and the lack of training saw him put on a lot of weight. Some people in the army wrote him off but that only served as fuel for his ambition.

The 24-year-old soon lost more than 15 kilos and started running again. During one of the races in 2017, army coach Amrish Kumar noticed his intensity and invited him to try out the steeplechase category.

“He had strength and endurance as he is from a rural area. He was very good at cross-country and when I saw his jumps in training, we decided to move him to steeplechase,” Amrish Kumar told Scroll.in.

Needless to say, the decision has reaped more than a few rewards.

Steady rise through the ranks

Avinash Sable shone immediately, finishing fifth at the 2017 Federation Cup and then was only nine seconds off the steeplechase national record at the Open Nationals in Chennai later in the year and as he neared it, the detractors cropped up once again.

“The steeplechase is a very tactical race. So most times, I was told it was not possible to break this record in India because there is no one who can set that kind of pace in India. So I had to set the pace for myself too,” the Indian army havaldar told ESPN.

While he proved critics wrong the last time they questioned him, for a brief period it looked like their words would ring true after all. Avinash Sable broke his ankle during training in early 2018 and attempted to rush back to running, resulting in him failing to qualify for the year’s Asian Games.

However, he bounced back soon enough and this time, the dream was finally achieved. At the 2018 Open Nationals in Bhubaneswar, Avinash Sable ran the 3,000m distance in 8:29.88, breaking the 30-year national record by 0.12 seconds.

Road to the Olympics

Not all was rosy for the army havaldar though. The rigorous methods of Russian coach Nikolai Snesarev did not suit his style and he considered giving up running briefly.

Instead Sable decided to severe ties with Snesarev and returned to train with a familiar face in Amrish Kumar. The reunited pair worked on strength training and trained at different climes to slowly gather more pace.

It culminated in him breaking the national record for a second time at the Federation Cup in Patiala early last year as he ran a time of 8:28.94, almost a second faster than his previous record and it also enabled him to run at the IAAF World Championships in Doha.

It was at this competition that Avinash Sable became a part of Indian athletics folklore, as he broke his own national record twice. In the heats, he ran three seconds faster than his national record time but it came with controversy.

He had initially not qualified for the final but the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) successfully appealed his obstruction by a fellow runner which allowed him to enter the last stage.

The army man finished 13th in the final with a time of 8:21.37 to better the national record once again and ensured his Games debut at the Tokyo Olympics.

With oodles of talent up his sleeve and plenty of reserve energy in the tank, Avinash Sable became the first Indian to qualify in the steeplechase since Gurzar Singh in 1952.

Though he had not ended up with a medal, the first step in his goal was achieved. It is now up to him to utilise the extra time to good effect and make the biggest impact possible at the Olympics.

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