For young Nihal, anything is possible

The Bengaluru-lad was on Wednesday named in the Indian team for the 3rd South Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Sri Lanka after his searing run in the boys' 400m at the 16th Federation Cup National Junior athletics championships last week.

Karnataka quarter-miler Nihal Joel, who on Wednesday was named in the Indian team for the 3rd South Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Sri Lanka.   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

Only five years ago, Nihal Joel dreamt, like thousands of boys of his age, of a future as a football player. He watched Manchester United on TV every weekend, idolized Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and played in midfield for his school team. Next week, though, he will wear the India jersey in Colombo in a different sporting discipline.

Nihal was on Wednesday named in the Indian team for the 3rd South Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Sri Lanka after his searing run in the boys' 400m at the 16th Federation Cup National Junior athletics championships last week. The 17-year-old claimed silver in a time of 47.08, matching Dharun Ayyasamy's meet record.

The result marks a stunning rise for the Bengaluru quarter-miler, who a year ago was clocking 52 seconds over the same distance. “It was the fastest race I have run in my life,” he says of his performance in Coimbatore.

“In Sri Lanka, my aim will be to break the 47-second barrier. I'm confident I can win a medal if I do it.”

In September last year, Nihal smashed B.C. Shashidhar's State U-18 record that had stood for 17 years, clocking 48.7 in Moodabidri. Later that same month, he broke the U-18 record at the South Zone Junior athletics championship in Trivandrum, finishing in 48.32. In November, he emerged the Junior National 400m champion (U-18) in Vijayawada, winning the event in a time of 48.16.

“The main thing is belief,” he says. “I never expected to win the Junior National title, but once I did I started to believe anything was possible.”

In 2012, though, Nihal turned his attention to track and field only because he couldn't make the school football team (although he went on to captain the side a couple of years later). Arjun Ajay, his coach at the Arjun Track and Field Academy here, realized he had talent when he saw him beating older, taller boys on the track (despite wearing oversized spikes). “He was crazy fast,” says Arjun.

“His pace used to remain the same from start to finish during a race.”

In Nihal's sights next are the Asian Junior Athletics Championships (Japan, June 7-10) and the IAAF World U-20 Championships (Finland, July 19-24), both events he is hopeful he will be in the Indian team for. “He's still 17 and doing 47.08. I believe he can break the 45-second barrier one day,” says Ajay.

It is a bold claim, for Muhammed Anas' National record stands at 45.31, but Nihal now believes anything is possible.