Gulveer Singh: Once running for Army promotion, India’s latest National Record setter now targets Olympics

Growing up in Sirsa village in Western UP’s Atrauli district, Gulveer’s goal was always to join the Army. He did run along the fields and roads of his village but only in order to prepare for the Army recruitment test.

Published : Mar 18, 2024 11:59 IST , NEW DELHI - 8 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: Gulveer Singh (right) set a new National Record in the 10,000m run at The Ten track meet in California on Sunday.
FILE PHOTO: Gulveer Singh (right) set a new National Record in the 10,000m run at The Ten track meet in California on Sunday. | Photo Credit: PTI

FILE PHOTO: Gulveer Singh (right) set a new National Record in the 10,000m run at The Ten track meet in California on Sunday. | Photo Credit: PTI

Back in 2019, when Gulveer Singh first started thinking about a career in track and field, his goals were fairly modest – a promotion to  havaldar.

“Someone told me that if I won a national medal I’d get an out-of-term promotion. I just wanted to get a national medal somehow,” he recalls.

In the five years since he first weighed his options, Singh has achieved a lot more than that. He’s won multiple national and international medals, most recently a bronze at the Asian Games.

And, on Sunday, competing in the 10,000m at The Ten track meet in California, Singh secured his best result yet. He crossed the finish line in 27.41.81, setting a new Indian national record in the men’s 10,000m. In doing so, Singh erased the second oldest record in Indian men’s track and field, improving on Surender Singh’s old mark of 28.02.89, set nearly 16 years ago in 2008.

And while he might have erased what was considered one of the hardest Indian records by over a third of a minute, Gulveer probably can get even faster. He only arrived in the USA as part of the Indian long distance running team a week ago and, owing to icy conditions at his training base at the Olympic high altitude centre in Colorado Springs, barely got any practise done before taking part in his first race of the season.

“He still has a lot of potential. I am very confident he will run faster than this time also. He’s still only 22 years old. He will only really start to peak as a long distance runner in another four years,” says Surendra, the erstwhile record holder who has also been coaching Gulveer at the National Camp at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Center in Bangalore.

Much of Gulveer’s coach’s confidence in his ability comes from the fact that he is still relatively fresh to the sport. That’s because Gulveer didn’t start out as a runner, only taking to the sport after he joined the Indian Army.

Late start

Growing up in Sirsa village in Western UP’s Atrauli district, Gulveer’s goal was always to join the Army, just like most youngsters from his village. He did run along the fields and roads of his village but only in order to prepare for the Army recruitment test. In 2018 he joined the 23 Grenadiers unit of the Indian Army as a  sipahi (junior-most post) .

Athletics happened purely by chance. Posted in Arunachal Pradesh in his second year, Gulveer learned about the inter-unit cross country race.

“It’s important for everyone to take part and there are many incentives if you do well. I learned that if you are a good athlete, you can specifically train as a runner. That also interested me. Army life is very tough especially with guard duty. So, I was very interested in doing well in that race. I remember that was the first time I prepared for a race,” he says.

Gulveer won his first cross country race and his performance was impressive enough to catch the eye of Younus Khan, coach of the long distance running programme at Army Sports Institute in Pune.

“Someone called me up from Arunachal Pradesh and said there was this really talented runner. He ran the 10km cross country race in 30.58. That was very impressive especially for someone who didn’t have much experience in running,” says Khan.

That same year Khan brought Gulveer to Pune where the youngster would finally receive formal coaching. In 2021, Gulveer won another inter-unit race and was ready to move onto track running. Khan says he wasn’t surprised about Gulveer’s progress.

“He was very disciplined. I’d never see him miss a day of training. And he was really talented. Every day you could see in the workouts that he was getting stronger,” says Khan.

Target: promotion

Furthermore, Gulveer was motivated, something coaches say they often see in runners who had been picked up from the inter-unit competitions.

“A lot of the runners who come from the inter-unit competitions don’t have a formal background in athletics. Very honestly, if you have done Army training and regular duty, running seems much easier. Because when they realise they have the chance to start an athletics career that can keep them on the track and out of typical duty, they really want to improve,” says Surendra.

Surendra adds that there’s another advantage runners from the armed forces bring to the track.

“The mindset of a soldier is very strong. When you are doing duty, if your officer tells you to climb a mountain at 2 in the night, then you have to do it. That makes you very tough. You don’t see that in runners who are coming from outside the army,” he says.

Gulveer admits as much. “I was doing this because I thought it might help my career.  Game karna hai (I had to run). With that I would get promotions. My pay would get better also,” Gulveer says.

Gulveer was following a well-trodden path with this line of thinking. “There are many top runners who aren’t from a sports background but follow this path. (Commonwealth Games silver medallist in the 3000m steeplechase) Avinash Sable also was someone who was a regular enlisted soldier. Even I was a  sipahi (private) when I started in the Army. I didn’t come from any sports quota either,” says Surendra.

Natural gifts

Gulveer wouldn’t have to wait long to see the results. At the 2022 Federation Cup, just three years after he ran his first inter-unit race, Gulveer won his first senior medal – a bronze in the men’s 10,000m.

A few months later, he won gold with a new meet record at the National Games. That form would continue into 2023 as well. He won a bronze in the 5,000m at the Asian Championships and followed that up with the biggest medal of his career – another bronze in the 10,000m at the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

Surendra says Gulveer has many natural abilities that he benefits from.

“He has naturally great stamina. Along with that, he is a very economical runner. He has a very smooth running action. He doesn’t have to fight when he is trying to keep pace with someone. In fact, when someone goes in front, it really suits Gulveer because he can follow them very well,” says Surendra.

Gulveer’s promotions in the Army have kept pace with his triumphs. “I was promoted to havaldar after I won the National Games gold. And after the Asian Games bronze, I was promoted once again to  Naib Subedar. Normally people take 20 years to get to that rank after they enlist but I got it in just six years,” he says.

Though he might have started primarily from a desire to improve his rank, Gulveer’s his ambitions have risen too. “I first heard of the Olympics in 2016 when I was in school. I thought it would be nice to take part but at that time I had no idea how I would be able to do that. Then, after I had started athletics, I saw Neeraj Chopra win the Olympic gold. And then I started thinking that maybe I could go to the Olympics as well,” he says.

Gulveer says he has been preparing for that goal ever since he returned to his village following the Asian Games.

“After I got a bronze at the Asian Games, there were a lot of functions in my village but I didn’t spend a lot of time there. I came back to the camp very quickly in order to stay fit for the next season,” he says.

Surendra, who has been working with Gulveer at the national camp, noticed that determination as well.

“Usually, when people come back from winning a big medal, you see that there is a little less motivation. There are a lot of distractions. But I didn’t see that with Gulveer. When he came back to the camp he was very fit. He told me, ‘Sir I have a  junoon (obsession) to play the Olympics. And I told him I hundred percent believe he can,’” says Surendra.

The path isn’t going to be very easy. Even though Gulveer broke the national record by a significant margin, he still is over forty seconds off from a direct Olympic qualification (Olympic qualification standards in the men’s 10,000m stands at 27.00.00).

While direct Olympic qualification might be hard, Surendra feels Gulveer has a reasonable chance to qualify via the world rankings route.

“There are some 27 Olympic quota places in the 10,000m. I think if Gulveer can run two other races in the 27.30.00 range over the next two months, I think he has a good chance of being in that ranking zone. Also, he might have a good chance to qualify through rankings in the 5,000m because there are a total of 42 quota places there,” he says.

Gulveer is conscious of this. “Although I’m happy I could break the national record, I know that this is only one step. Right now my career is only starting. There’s a lot of work I have to do,” he says.

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