The Belarus-born long-distance coach Nikolai Snesarev and his three wards O.P. Jaisha, Sudha Singh and Lalita Babar were nowhere to be seen. At least to the assembled media it seemed odd, but for those in the know, it was normal. For Nikolai, the task-master, who is known to monitor even his athletes’ phone usage, everything beyond the track and field was secondary
“It was tough,” Sudha Singh said on Friday, recollecting the days prior to the Olympics. “Probably that was why we left the national camp in Ooty for a month,” she added laughingly.
In the run-up to Rio, the coach and his runners weren’t exactly on the same page. All three had qualified for marathon but the athletes themselves wanted to focus on track events. In fact, Sudha was given a chance to opt for 3000m steeplechase only after a showdown with Nikolai and the subsequent intervention of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI).
But Nikolai has always had results to show, with the latest being Lalita finishing 10th in steeplechase in Rio.
“To secure good performances, his regimen worked,” felt Sudha. “We learnt what discipline was. But otherwise we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything. He wanted army-type discipline. We would never speak to the media. We had to eat only boiled food. It’s natural for us crave for other things too, but we could never eat.”
“Pareshaan karta hai. Par performance chahiye tho jhelna hai [He worries us. But if we want good performances, we have to endure it].”
Sudha was particularly disappointed that after all the hardship, it came to nothing in Rio as she failed to make the final, clocking 9:43.29s, way off her best.
“In May I clocked 9:31.86s [Federation Cup, Delhi] and then in the Diamond League [Shanghai] I broke the national record with a timing of 9:26.55s,” she said. “Coach relented and agreed for steeplechase because my timing was at around sixth in the world.”
“I wanted to do well in Rio. But I couldn’t. I didn’t actually know then whether it was because of the fever (on returning from Rio she was diagnosed with the Influenza ‘A’ H1N1). There used to be body pain. I thought it was because of the journey and was given Combiflam – a pain-killer.”
But Sudha is now slowly picking up the pieces. “I started training only 10 days back. Even for up to a month after coming home, the feeling was not right. But I won’t be in this sport for another ten years. So I have to train hard. No choice.”