First to qualify for Paris Olympics, racewalker Akshdeep says ‘many miles still to go’

‘Aage ka socho aur chalte raho.’ Racewalker Akshdeep Singh overcomes CWG snub and smashes national record to become the first Indian athlete to qualify for Paris Olympics

Published : Feb 15, 2023 09:09 IST

Racewalker Akshdeep Singh became the first Indian to qualify for the Paris Olympics.
Racewalker Akshdeep Singh became the first Indian to qualify for the Paris Olympics. | Photo Credit: AFI

Racewalker Akshdeep Singh became the first Indian to qualify for the Paris Olympics. | Photo Credit: AFI

In April last year, Akshdeep Singh accomplished a significant career milestone when he won his first medal at the senior level – a silver in the men’s 20km race at the 2022 Racewalking National Championships with a new personal best time.

“I wasn’t satisfied and I told my coaches. I knew the Olympic qualification season was starting in a year’s time. That was my target,” Akshdeep tells Sportstar. On Tuesday, Akshdeep did just that.

Competing at the National Race Walking Championships in Ranchi, he won gold in the men’s 20km with a time of 1.19.55s. This was a new national record, erasing Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Sandeep Kumar’s previous mark of 1.20.16s.

It also breached the qualification standard of 1.20.10s for both the World Championships and the Paris Olympics in a year’s time – making him the first Indian athlete to do so.

But while Olympic qualification might be seen as a career-defining feat for any track and field competitor, the 23-year-old Akshdeep, not unlike a year ago, isn’t planning to celebrate any time soon.

His plan is limited to visiting a gurudwara. “It is the nature of records to fall. Today it is me and tomorrow it will be someone else. I will give thanks to God that this time it’s my name next to the record.” he says.

“Since the morning I’ve got a lot of calls. When you win something, the world will congratulate you and you have to say thank you but I know I need to stay focussed. Qualify to bohot karte hain. (a lot of people qualify for the Olympics) Some 100 Indians will qualify for the year. It is not a small thing but maine koi bada teer bhi nahi maar diya. (It’s not some huge achievement either). It’s a result that’s come after 7 years of work but I have to stay focussed on what is next and my next race,” he says.

If he wants to keep his achievement in perspective, that’s because it’s something he’s learned over the course of his eight-year athletics career.

“People say I’m mature for my age but that’s something some learn early in life and others later. There was a time when I thought that I’ll only keep getting better. But I’ve experienced it all. I’ve slept in five-star hotels and I’ve slept on the pavement. There’s no guarantee that even if everything seems to be in place you will succeed. The only thing you can do is keep working hard and focusing on the next step,” he says.

From middle-distance runner to racewalker 

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2018, Akshdeep thought his career trajectory was only heading one way – upwards.

The son of a farmer, he had been inspired to run after seeing young army aspirants training in his village of Kahneke near the town of Barnala in Southern Punjab.

He’d started out as a middle-distance runner and enjoyed modest success at the district level before he met former national coach Gurdev Singh who advised him to switch to the race walk in 2016.

Also Read | With 65m on her mind, javelin thrower Annu Rani moves to Germany, trains alongside Vetter

Training alongside the national campers in Patiala, the switch proved to be an inspiring one. In 2018 he won gold in the U-20 boys 10km event at the race-walking nationals, and another gold at the inter-university championships and followed that up with a new national record in the same event at the Junior nationals in November. 

“When I got the national record the first time, I was actually the sixth best in the world in my age category. I was sure I would go on to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in two years,” he says.

Those plans came to nothing. A few weeks after setting the junior record, Akshdeep suffered a left knee tendon injury after undergoing heavy load training. “Ultimately I had to have surgery and that caused me to miss the next eight months in order to recover,” he says.

Racewalkers during the National Racewalking Championships.
Racewalkers during the National Racewalking Championships. | Photo Credit: AFI

Racewalkers during the National Racewalking Championships. | Photo Credit: AFI

The Pandemic

Just as he started to get back to training in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “I was training in Bangalore but I had to go back home. Because of the restrictions, I was unable to train for three months. I was just sitting at home or doing farm work and feeding cattle. Even once I was allowed to train, it took a long time for me to regain the level I was used to competing in,” he says.

The loss of training took a toll on his performance. His best time in 2021 was 1.33.28s – over seven minutes slower than his previous best of 1.26.12s.

Also Read | Sable, Parul in World Cross Country Championships entry list

He even failed in his bid for army recruitment, something he had never expected when he was a national champion a couple of years before. 

“That was a bad time. Ek din lag raha tha Tokyo ja sakte then another day lockdown, can’t get a job as a sipahi even. (One day I was thinking I’d be going to Tokyo and the next day I can’t even clear the requirement for a sports quota job in the army). And to save money instead of staying at a hotel I’d sleep on the pavement when I had to travel for the selection trials,” he recalls.

Comeback & CWG Snub 

Although he eventually did, going on to win gold at the 2022 Inter-University Championships and then silver at the 2022 Racewalking nationals, the comeback wasn’t a smooth one.

Akshdeep was hoping to cap his return with a strong performance at the Commonwealth Games but despite his results at the start of the year, he wasn’t picked for the Indian team. 

“After I came second at the Racewalking nationals, I thought I would be picked for the Commonwealth Games. Two walkers were supposed to go and I actually had a good time as well. I was really looking forward to the Games. I even had put a wallpaper of the Birmingham Games and the Commonwealth medal on my phone. But eventually, they picked another walker.”

While he was bitterly upset then, Akshdeep has made his peace with the past. “I was very upset when it happened but I can understand why that decision was made.

The Commonwealth Games are a major competition and they probably wanted to go with someone who had performed more consistently. It’s not my fault that I wasn’t able to train properly in 2020 and 2021 but there’s nothing I can do about it now,” he says.

The disappointment of missing out on the Commonwealth Games though only bolstered his motivation.

“After I was not picked for the Games, I deleted my phone wallpaper. Instead, I put up a picture of my family. I decided I would do what it took so that they would be proud of me,” he says.

While he didn’t go to Birmingham, Akshdeep did have a few wins last year. He took third place at the National Games and even more significantly for him, he finally cleared selection trials with the Indian Navy.

His priority remained the Olympic qualification mark though.

“Ever since I won the silver medal at last year’s nationals, I was able to train at the national camp in Bangalore. My coaches (former Olympic competitors for India and Russia respectively) Gurmeet Singh and Tatyana Sibileva both have been preparing me with the Olympics as a target.” 

For all his focus, Akshdeep says the result took him by surprise.

“I had a personal best of 1.23.14s before the race. I was thinking I might improve that to about 1.21.00s in Ranchi. I was then thinking I could improve further at the Asian Championships (in July). During the race though the group I was in was pushing really hard and around the 18th kilometre, I felt we were at a record pace.

Tatyana’s plan was that if my body felt good,  thoda aur khinch sakta hu (I could pull myself a bit more) and in the end that’s what got me the record. I couldn’t have done any more today. At the end of the race I was completely exhausted,” he says.

The Road Ahead

While the record was unexpected, Akshdeep says that’s just how his career has been. “That’s the thing about athletics. In my career, I’ve had lots of ups and downs. Sometimes we do everything and things don’t work out and then sometimes things come to you when you aren’t expecting it.”

Now that he’s cracked the 1-hour 20-minute barrier, Akshdeep and his coaches are already thinking of how they could improve the record further. 

“My coaches are happy but we are not satisfied. We have to look ahead. If we think what I’ve done is a big thing, then we won’t be able to accomplish the next target. It’s not big and it’s not small. It’s just a goal that’s now over.  Bus aage ka socho aur chalte raho (I just have to think of the next race and keep moving),” he says.

Sign in to unlock all user benefits
  • Get notified on top games and events
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign up / manage to our newsletters with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early bird access to discounts & offers to our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment