Year after he missed Olympic qualification by 1 second, Suraj Panwar makes no mistake this time

Despite not winning gold at the Indian Open Race Walking Competition in Chandigarh on Tuesday, Panwar officially finished inside the qualification (1.20.10) standard for the men’s 20km race walk event set for the 2024 Olympics.

Published : Jan 31, 2024 08:36 IST - 9 MINS READ

Suraj Panwar.
Suraj Panwar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Suraj Panwar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As he competed in the men’s 20km race walk event at the Indian Open Race Walking Competition in Chandigarh on Tuesday, Suraj Panwar recalls constantly glancing at the timer on his wrist watch. When he stepped across the finish line in clear second place, Panwar instinctively stopped the timer on his watch and only then did he feel he could relax.

The official result gave him the exact race timing. While it was not enough for gold, Panwar had accomplished what he had come out to do. He had officially finished inside the qualification (1.20.10) standard for the men’s 20km race walk event set for the 2024 Olympics. In doing so, Panwar became the fourth Indian to meet the qualification standard for the Paris Games.

But Panwar could well have qualified last year as well. Indeed if Panwar was nervous in Chandigarh, it was due to what happened at last year’s edition of the Race Walking Cup in Ranchi. “I should have qualified for the Olympics in Ranchi itself. But I finished 1 second short of the qualifying mark (he finished in 1.20.11 seconds),” he recalls.

Panwar knew he was close to the Olympic qualification standard while competing in Ranchi last February. “I wasn’t looking at my watch then but knew I was near the qualification time because people were telling me to go faster. Because I was focussing on the race, I really didn’t hear what they were saying or think I was so close to Olympic qualification. It’s only when I crossed the finish line and stopped my timer that I saw I had completed the race in about 1.20.10. But I knew there will always be some sort of variation in the timing so I waited to see what the official time was. It was 1.20.11. That’s when I knew I had missed the Olympic qualification by 1 second,” he says.

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It was a result that hit him hard. “I knew that people were telling me to go faster but at that time I felt a bit of back pain and I also was a long way behind the winner (Akshdeep Singh won and qualified for the Olympics with a new national record time of 1.19.55). I felt there was no way I was going to fight for first place so I just didn’t push myself as hard. But in the end when I saw I was just one second away from the Olympics, I felt really guilty. In a race that’s 1 hour 20 minutes long, there are so many places where I could have lost one second without even realising it. I could have pushed myself just a little bit more. I was thinking of what all I had missed out on. If I had got the Olympic quota, I might have got a good job, and all the respect that comes with being an Olympic athlete,” he says.

Injury on top of insult

The disappointment of missing out was compounded. The back pain Panwar was feeling in Ranchi was a pinched nerve that hadn’t been diagnosed yet. He nevertheless competed at the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan in March where he had a disappointing competition. Panwar was 2 minutes slower than at Ranchi and finished 19 th overall while two other Indians (Vikash Singh and Paramjeet Singh Bisht ) went under the qualification standard. With India only permitted to send a maximum of three participants in an individual event to the Olympics, Panwar’s hopes for Paris seemed particularly bleak at that point.

A desire to travel and see the world had been one of Panwar’s primary goal when he started to pursue sports. As a youngster, he grew up in the village of Karbari Grant, some 15 kilometres west of Dehradun in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. “My village is very beautiful. Its surrounded by forests, but I always wanted to go out. I knew that through sports, I could travel at least to the neighbouring districts. I could travel by bus. If I was lucky I could even travel to a different state by train. That was my motivation when I was young,” he says.

It was at a inter school competition near his village that Panwar first took to the race walk. “I had already competed in the running events but had not won anything. Race walking had been introduced as a sport and my school PE teacher told my to try my luck in it because it was better than coming back empty handed. At that time there was no real craze for race walking and there were only 5 or 6 participants. I took part after just hearing about the rules and somehow came second. But that encouraged me,” he says.

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Another motivation he says was the fact that he could get a government job through sports. Panwar was less than a year old when his father, a forestry department worker, had been killed while preventing illegal logging in the mountains. Panwar and his two elder brothers were raised on the solitary income of their mother who worked as a manual labourer for the forest department, planting trees in the forests.

Big break in Coimbatore

Armed with the basics of his sport, Panwar practised at his school and discovered he had a talent in the sport. “In my first year of training I got to the block level but I didn’t get to the state level because I only finished third (only the top two competed at the state level). But the next year I made it to the state level. After that I started training under a proper coach, Anoop Bisht sir. The year after that I competed at the national junior championships in Coimbatore where I won gold in the 5000m race walk in the U-16 category. That was the turning point in my life,” he recalls.

For his national gold, Panwar received a cheque of 50000 from the state government. “It was more money than I had ever seen in my life. That’s when I knew I could make a future for myself in this sport also. It also gave me some independence. Until then if I needed something I would ask my mother. She was poor but she never let me feel I couldn’t get a pair of shoes or something to eat. But after that I could buy what I needed without having to ask,” he says.

The national gold also got him admission to a state sports hostel where he continued to improve. “After my first gold in Coimbatore, I’ve won a medal every year. With every medal I won, I got some prize money from the state government. I would use that money on my diet and kit,” he says.

In 2018 Panwar was selected for the Indian team that competed at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires where he won a silver medal in the 5km race walk event. That got him additional sponsors and eventually a job with the Indian Navy.

At the national level too, Panwar’s been close to the elite group for a while now. He won silver at the 2022 National Games in Ahmedabad and despite missing the Olympic cut, was considered one of the top walkers in the country. “Although I was very disappointed, my coach Tatiana ma’am (National coach Tatiana Sibileva) told me it was a matter of time before I met the Olympic standard. She was very confident that I would do it,” he says.

The pinched nerve he suffered in Ranchi complicated that journey somewhat – he was out of competition for nearly six months after his return from the Asian Race Walking championships. “I was only doing basic fitness work during that time. I couldn’t really push myself,” he recalls. However he returned to competition at last year’s National Games in Goa where he won gold and had his sights set on making the Paris cut at his first opportunity in 2024.

All out race strategy

“Before the (National Race Walking Competition) competition, I promised myself that I wouldn’t put myself in a position where I was wondering if I was one second away from Olympic qualification. Normally athletes in race walk try to stay in a group early in the race but I immediately went in front of everyone. I had made a plan that I had to do every one of the 1km lap in 4 minutes so that I could clock 1 hour 20 minutes for the whole (20km) distance,” he says.

Constantly checking his watch, Panwar knew he was well inside the qualification time which is why he didn’t attempt a national record and allowed himself to slow down in his final few laps. This ended up allowing Akshdeep Singh to go past him and take the gold with a new national record ( “When I knew I was well on pace for the Olympic qualification standard, I decided to be a little safe. Because if you push yourself you can commit a foul in the final lap and the race judges can disqualify you with just one warning at that point instead of three like they normally give. I just wanted to make sure nothing went wrong,” he says.

Nothing would. But even though Panwar’s gone under the Olympic qualification standard, he knows he’s not there in Paris just yet. A total of six Indians (apart from Panwar, another two met the Olympic qualification standard on Tuesday) have met the standard, but India can only send a maximum of 3 participants in each event. That means that someone will have to miss out.

Panwar says he will do his best to make sure he’s not that unlucky one. “After the race, I got a call from my brother congratulating me for becoming an Olympian. I told him I haven’t confirmed that just yet. India has to select only three athletes for the Olympics. We have one more competition – (The World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships in Antalya, Turkey) in April. So I think I will have to perform well at that race too. That’s my target. Whatever I’ve done in India is good but I need to do the same in a big race. I need to do the same thing there. I will put in my complete best there. Last year I missed the Olympics by just one second. I don’t want the same to happen this time also,” he says. 

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