She may not boast of massive international experience when it comes to participating in the 3,000-metre steeplechase event but ask anyone concerning Indian athletics, they will tell you that Lalita Babar is India’s big medal hope in athletics at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The 26-year-old girl from Satara, who took up the 3,000 metre steeplechase event only in March 2014 after doing 5,000 and 10,000 metres races for a long while, besides winning a hat-trick of Mumbai Marathon titles (2012-14), sprang a big surprise winning a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games on her international debut, and then followed it up with a gold medal at the 2015 Asian Athletic Championship in Wuhan.
The Central Railway employee, who captured public imagination when she became the first Indian women runner to reach the World Championship final, spoke about her Olympic plans and much more in an exclusive interview.
Q: Tell us a bit about your early days – how do you get hooked on to athletics?
A: Well, my first love was kho-kho - I played this sport for two years between 2002 and 2004 and then realised that it is hard to shine in a team event like kho-kho and soon switched to athletics. Gradually I made new strides in long distance running in events like 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres and made my senior debut in 2008 in these events.
Q: You had won various medals in 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres and even won a hat-trick of Mumbai Marathon titles from 2012-14. How did the switch to steeplechase happen?
A: I started training under our Russian head coach Dr Nikolai Snesarev in 2010 and it was then he suggested that I should take up steeplechase as he felt I would be handy in this event and that’s how it all started. I got used to clearing hurdles and water jump clearance and first took part in the 2013 National Open Athletic Championship and won gold medals in the National Inter-State Championship and Federation Cup in 2014.
Q: The 2014 Incheon Asian Games was your senior international debut in the 3,000 steeplechase event and yet you went on to bag a bronze medal for the country -you also broke the national record of 2010 Asiad gold medallist Sudha Singh.
A: I had no international experience when I went to Incheon. I had no idea how international steeplechase races are run on the big stage. I did not quite expect to make a podium finish with a timing of 9:35.37 and thought with a bit of international experience I could have won the gold as I finished narrowly behind China’s Li Zhenzhu (9:35.23) and gold winner Ruth Jebet of Bahrain (9:31.36).
Q: Sudha Singh has consistently won medals in the 3,000 steeplechase event ever since she gold at the 2010 Asian Games. You pushed her to fourth place in the 2014 Asian Games. What’s your take on the healthy competition between both of you?
A: She has done well for the country but I don’t think of any competition as I know I’m in my best form and hope to make my country proud in the 3,000 steeplechase event. As for now, I’m focused on doing well for the country.
Q: You won the gold medal in the 3,000 steeplechase event at the 2015 Asian Athletic Championship in Wuhan, China, where you broke your national record as well as the games record with a timing of 9:34.13.
A: Look, I was pretty inexperienced on the world stage when I took part in the 2014 Asian Games but for the 2015 Asian Athletic Championship I was more than ready to give my best as I had a fair understanding of how to run in international steeplechase races. I pushed 2014 Asian Games silver medallist Li Zhenzhu of China to second spot in the final in Wuhan.
Q: You missed younger sister’s marriage earlier this year when you were tied up with your camp programme after winning the gold medal at the 2015 Asian Athletic Championship in Wuhan.
A: Yeah, my sister got married in June and I had to give this happy event a miss because of my training. I hope all these sacrifices pays off in the long run.
Q: Breaking records is becoming a habit for you – you once broke your own personal record of 9:35.37 by nearly seven seconds clocking a timing of 9:27.86 at the 2015 IAAF World Championship in Beijing, in the process becoming the first Indian women runner to reach the final of the big-ticket event.
A: The 2015 IAAF World Championship was a big learning curve for me as I got to see how all top athletics prepared for the 3,000 steeplechase event. I have also learnt on how to pace my race and conserve energy for the final burst as I observed medal winners from Kenya, Tunisia and Germany in Beijing. I was excited to reach the final of the World Championship on my debut and finished eighth ahead of Asian Games gold medallist Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, who finished 11th.
Q: Indian runners practice on synthetic tracks whereas the big events like the World Championships and Olympics are held on Mondo tracks – do you think there is a need to upgrade infrastructure in India?
A: We don’t have Mondo tracks in India as yet and if we have it, it will boost our athletes. We practice on synthetic tracks, which are also quite a few in number, especially the good ones. I think we need indoor tracks as it will help Indian athletics in a big way. In India, we can’t train outdoors at various times of the years either due to rain or high temperature and having an indoor track can be hugely beneficial for our athletes.
Q: Having clocked a timing of 9:27.86 at the 2015 IAAF World Championship in Beijing, what kind of timing you think will ensure you an Olympic medal?
A: I think to win an Olympic medal one has to clock 9:10, something which is not beyond me. I just hope I stay injury-free and keep training hard and get adequate international competition exposure in the run up to the Olympics and if all goes to plan, I can do wonders for the country.