Little more than a decade ago, when Priyanka Goswami decided to pursue race walking, her parents were not convinced about her choice.
Hailing from a lower-middle-class family in Meerut, Priyanka's father once told her that “yeh event itna hard hain, yahan to medal aata hi nahi…” and even advised her to reconsider the decision. But the youngster was confident of proving her father wrong someday.
She would work hard under her coach Gurmeet Singh - initially as a day-boarder staying outside the NIS in Patiala - and eventually broke into the national camp. There would be days when she would even eat at the langar (community kitchen) in a Gurudwara in Patiala and train. But those days of struggle eventually made Priyanka grittier and made her work harder to chase her dreams.
And three weeks ago, as she reached the podium at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, becoming the first Indian woman to clinch a medal at the 10,000m race walk, Priyanka realised that her flight had finally taken off.
“Mummy-papa were not convinced about race walking and they even thought that the sport has no future. But I always believed that I have a great opportunity to prove everyone wrong,” Priyanka told Sportstar on Monday.
As she spoke in a plush south-Mumbai hotel on the sidelines of a partnership event between the Athletics Federation of India and the HSBC, the television cameras and photographers were focused on her. While she obliged the shutterbugs, posing for pictures, Priyanka smiled and added, “After winning the Commonwealth Games silver medal, people have started noticing our performances. Now, everyone knows that even race walkers can win medals in big-ticket events…”
In school, Priyanka was into gymnastics, but slowly, she shifted her allegiance to race-walking. When she was in class XI, the Physical Education teachers in her school told Priyanka that she would have a better chance in race-walking as there were not many competitors. Initially, it was a challenge to make a mark, but slowly, Priyanka found her way.
“It was not easy to battle past the odds and come so far. But now that I have been able to do it, I feel that my efforts will also inspire the younger generation. They can now look up to us and say it is very much possible to get a medal in race-walking and they will be more focused in their training. Slowly, the medal tally will increase,” she said.
The Athletics Federation of India has been supporting the race-walkers for more than a decade and India’s success in the Commonwealth Games will even help the AFI promote the sport further. “Like Adille sir (AFI president Adille Sumariwalla) spoke about the support of the AFI, but I am sure, even the federation will be proud of us because we have been able to break the medal-jinx. This is perhaps for the first time that we have won medals in both men’s and women’s categories and it is certainly a big thing. I am sure with AFI’s continued support, we will only improve,” Priyanka said.
Whenever she competes, Priyanka carries a small metallic statue of Laddu Gopal (Lord Krishna as a baby) and she feels that it has helped her overcome the challenges. “My mom had the statue of Laddu Gopal at home. During the lockdown, I went through a phase of depression as I was missing out on training sessions and that’s when my mom told me to take care of the Laddu Gopal and I listened to her. It helped me a lot to overcome the odds and focus on my sport. Since then, I made sure this stays with me,” she said.
While the lockdown was hard for the athletes, Priyanka slowly got into the groove and started planning. “I had set myself a target. I wanted to achieve the timing of 1 hour 28 minutes and that was my sole target. It did not matter whether I won a medal or not, for me, it was important to be in the groove and slowly, I could focus on my performance and just did not bother about what was happening around…”
After putting in the hard yards at the CWG, she will now head into the off-season and slowly start preparing for next year’s Olympic qualifiers. “There are also the Asian Games and the World Championships and my target will be to win a medal. But during the off-season, it will be a challenge to maintain the momentum. This is the time to let our muscles relax and work hard on the areas that need improvement,” she said.
“I think I need to work a bit more on my confidence and mental toughness. Those are the two things where we normally struggle. The medal win has helped me become a lot more confident and I hope to keep that going in the days to come,” she said, “My target is to train harder and make sure that I am in the right headspace. If you train hard, you become confident on the track…”