“You’re probably a football fan, aren’t you?”
It’s not hard to guess why Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam gets asked this a lot.
Surprisingly though, for a young man from football-crazy Manipur, with the name he has, Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam confesses he has little interest in playing the sport. His association with football begins and ends, he says, with the circumstances of his birth.
The story, according to Ronaldo’s retelling, goes something like this. On the afternoon of 21st June 2002, CRPF trooper Roben Singh Laitonjam was in Srinagar watching Brazil play England in the quarterfinal of the FIFA World Cup. The game was only a distraction. Around 2,100 km away in Imphal, his wife was minutes away from delivering their first child. In the 50th minute of the match, with the scores level, Ronaldinho lined up a free kick. Roben made a bet with his fellow troopers – the ball was going in. Just as the Brazilian lobbed the ball over a despairing David Seaman, a call came in – his wife was going into labour.
“Just as the ball went in the goal, I must have started making an appearance. I think my dad won some money that day. That's probably why I got that name. He felt I was very lucky for him,” says Ronaldo.
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It’s clear Roben wasn’t paying much attention to the match, or his son would have been named Ronaldinho. As things stand, Ronaldo too didn’t show much interest in following the footballing path of his namesake either.
However, Ronaldo is well on track to becoming a star in his own right. At the Asian Track Cycling championships that concluded in New Delhi on Wednesday, Ronaldo won a bronze in the team sprint event and a silver medal with a new national record in the men’s elite sprint race. If the bronze was the first ever medal for India in the senior category at the Asian Championships, the silver was the best ever result at the same stage. As it stands, Ronaldo is well on course to fulfil the potential he showed three years earlier – when he, along with Rojit Singh and Esow Alban, created history by winning India’s first ever gold medal at the junior world championships.
It’s a journey that he says his father set him on many years ago. “My father was a great inspiration for me. He put in a lot of work so I would be an international medallist. That was always his dream. He passed away in 2017, so every time I compete, I try to make him proud of me,” he says.
Ronaldo stands 6'1 and weighs 92kg, showcasing a body of rippling muscle, with tree-trunk sized quadriceps nearly as thick as the average man’s waistline. As he barrels down the velodrome straights at upwards of 72kmph, Ronaldo looks every bit the elite sprinter he is today. But cycling wasn’t the first thing he did.
“When I was a kid, my father taught me to do high diving. He would make me jump off the tallest board into the pool. It was very scary. He did that to take out my fear. I did that for three months, then I did gymnastics. I did B-Boy stuff on the streets. That made me very flexible. I also did swimming to develop my muscles,” he says.
Football though was verboten. “Till today, mereko kick marna nahi aata. (I don’t know how to even kick a ball) . My dad always told me that if I play football, mera knee ka alignment kharab ho jayega (my knees will get misaligned). So, because of that I never took it up,” he says.
Ronaldo did all this even as he tried to understand what sport he could focus on. That came entirely by accident. “I found cycling at exactly the right time. When I was 14 years old, there was some sort of a talent hunt competition in Manipur (to select athletes for the cycling national centre of excellence in Delhi). I was told to run the 1600m and do push-ups. And I was last in both of them. I must have done 58 push-ups. Some guys, I remember, did 110 push-ups. It was a miracle I got selected. But I got a letter saying come to Delhi and there will be a trial for three days,” he says.
Ronaldo says he went to Delhi without any expectation of being selected. “At that time, they told me that of the six kids from Manipur who came to Delhi, only three would be chosen. I thought, at least I’ll get a chance to see Delhi,” he recalls.
Eventually, though, Ronaldo was picked. While he felt he wasn’t the best, a newly bought power cycle suggested otherwise. Rahul Singh witnessed the spark. "Just before Ronaldo came, we had bought a machine that tests power. Ronaldo, even at 14, was generating some 1400 watts of power. The average we were getting at that point was about 1200 watts. He was one of the most naturally powerful athletes we had seen,” says Rahul, who has coached Ronaldo at the National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) right from his early days.
If the coaches wanted the explosive youngster, Ronaldo, too, was intrigued by the camp and the sport. “When I came to the camp, I was very impressed with the kind of diet they were getting. I saw that they were getting to eat chicken lollipops and omelettes. As a kid I thought I want to go to the camp and become an international player so I could eat that as well. I also saw them train and I saw how fast they went around corners. I used to think, ' Wah kya mast log hain, kya style hai (these are such cool people). ’ I want to be like these guys,” he recalls thinking.
His ride since he joined, has been a smooth one. Or at least as much as it can be. Although the track can be a dangerous place - and Ronaldo has the thick scars on his elbows and knees to account for all the times he’s been thrown off the cycle and been dragged along the rough wooden track - he’s never been afraid to go as hard the next time.
“It was probably the high diving I did as a kid. It actually took a lot of fear away from me. Because I was used to falling, it wasn’t something that I was worried about. It taught me to fight my nervousness and fear before competition. That’s why I’m more comfortable with it now,” he says.
What also helped, says coach Rahul, is the fact that Ronaldo, along with other members of the Indian team have been regularly training and competing overseas. “In the past, our cyclists would only get the chance to compete with the best athletes in the world at the Asian or Commonwealth Games or maybe a World Championships. They’d get overawed by seeing the cyclists from the big countries. These kids have grown up training and competing next to those top cyclists. Earlier, if some of them would push our cyclists out of the best line for the race, our guys would just give up. Now, Ronaldo will push them right back,” he says.
However, although the gold at the 2019 junior world championships was supposed to be the breakout moment for Ronaldo and the rest of the junior team, the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to hit a speed breaker. “The camp shut down and I had to return home to Imphal. That was probably the most difficult time of my life. While the cyclists in Europe were continuing to train, I was stuck at home with a policeman standing on the road outside my house making sure no one was on the road. I lost a lot of confidence and fitness at that time,” he recalls.
It was only once the camps restarted that Ronaldo could take stock of where he stood. “I had put on a lot of weight. I was doing what physical training I could do at home but I was nearly 100kg when I came back to the camp. But that break gave me a lot of motivation to correct the mistakes I was making,” he says.
Ronaldo started putting a lot more effort into his gym sessions on his return to the camp. “I’m very particular about this. I chart down my day-to-day progress on my laptop. I don’t just wait for people to tell me how much I’m doing or where I have to improve. I’ve started analysing it myself,” he says.
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These are not empty words. Coaches say Ronaldo is one of the strongest in the Indian team. Though they don’t like to give exact numbers, they say he is squatting upwards of 260kg for repetitions.
Ronaldo is a lot stronger mentally as well. India’s build up to the Asian Championships was marred by former chief coach RK Sharma's termination from his position after allegations of harassment made by a woman athlete. Ronaldo says he’s been able to find peace away from the chaos.
“When I come to the track, I forget whatever is going on around me or what I am facing. I’m just focusing entirely on my race. If anything, I’ll listen to some soft rock. (The band) Linkin Park is my favourite, but these days I’m listening to (Manipuri rock band) Innocent Eyes,” he says.
With his medals at the Asian Championships, Ronaldo will rise to 36th in the world rankings in the individual sprint. But he wants to go further. “My goal is to break into the top 30 in the world. That’s the number of athletes who qualify for the Olympics, so, that’s where I need to be,” he says. It’s the Olympics that remain his primary goal. While the Commonwealth Games are in a little over a month's time, coach Rahul says Ronaldo will focus on the World Championships in October this year – which will provide a lot more ranking points.
Although Ronaldo has high expectations of himself, he knows he needs a lot more experience of high-level races. In the gold medal race at the Asian Championships, for instance, his inexperience cost him. After his Japanese opponent swerved out of his lane, Ronaldo raised his hand – which caused him to forfeit the race for dangerous cycling. “If I had just completed the race, I could have asked for a review of the race. My opponent was clearly outside his track but because I took my hand off the handlebars I was immediately disqualified. That’s something I’ll learn from," he says. "At the senior level, a lot of my competitors have competed in hundreds of races. That’s experience that I will get eventually. This year, I won my first silver medal at the senior level. Next year, I will have the experience to try for gold."
When you consider how far Ronaldo has progressed and what is expected of him, it’s easy to forget that Ronaldo is just 20 years old. “I might look very big and strong and hard on the outside, but inside I’m still a kid who misses Cartoon Network,” he says. Like many youngsters his age, he admits he has multiple interests. "I'm good at a lot of things. In the past I learned to do card magic. I still do some B-Boying. Then I decided to learn to play the guitar. These days, I’m painting. I paint all sorts of things. I’ll do portraits, anime, or even paint shoes."
All those, though, are secondary. "I'm good at a lot of things, but that's not what I do. My job is cycling. My role is to be very fast at it. I want everyone to know me as Ronaldo the cyclist,” he says.