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Amlan Borgohain's journey from football to athletics stardom

India's new sprint star talks about his fitness and training journey after setting a new national record for 200m

Amlan Borgohain is eyeing bigger things in international athletics.
Amlan Borgohain is eyeing bigger things in international athletics. (Athletics Federation of India)

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From start to finish, Amlan Borgohain ran the race that he and his team had meticulously worked towards. On 6 April, the final day of the National Federation Cup held in Kozhikode, the 23-year-old from Assam sprinted 200 metres in 20.52 seconds to create a new national record; surpassing Muhammed Anas Yahiya’s mark of 20.63 seconds set in 2018. What was India’s new sprint star thinking about as he tore towards the finish line? “The last 50 metres, I always feel like, ‘Oh! What if I die!’” Borgohain says about the lung-busting effort. “I still have that in my mind that 200 metres is too long.”

For the outside world, 200m may be his most successful event, but the 100m is closer to Borogohain’s heart. It is his “personal favourite” and football is his first love. He grew up watching his father—a military man—and brother, play the beautiful game and wanted to follow in the footsteps. Even though he played football till the junior national level, frequent injuries finally took their toll. 

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“When I was in Class 8, I was already six feet tall,” he says. “One of my brother’s friends told me since I have a good build I should try athletics too, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time.” But with football out of the picture, he decided to give it a go and ran his first race in 2015. In the end, it wasn’t the foundation laid by football or thrill of racing that saw him choose sprinting. “Basically, I am a lazy guy,” Borgohain says. “I wanted to compete in an event that would get over quickly.”

Over the course of the conversation, Amlan drops few of these breezy one-liners, meant to amuse as well as inform. His statements are unvarnished and his range of interests wide. He is a 23-year-old who grew up in different cities—first Delhi, then Hyderabad—high on the euphoria of the English Premier League and Cristiano Ronaldo fandom, a fan of anime and an Economics student who keeps a close watch on the stock market.

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He’s equally at ease talking about how fierce a competitor he is. “In the first race that I ever ran, I stood second. Even though it was my first race I was thinking, ‘How did I lose to that guy?’” he says. His defeats—first at high school meets, then district, then state and finally nationals—further fuelled the fire. Every time he lost, he just went back to training, his focus on overcoming that barrier.

In 2019, he won a national meet organised by Reliance Foundation Odisha. He impressed the foundation’s High Performance Centre (HPC) head coach, James Hillier, and was soon included in their athletics programme. There, they buffed his raw speed with scientific methods. The realisation that he could make it big in the sport saw Borgohain clean up his diet and shed his languor.

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“He’s a very serious, very disciplined athlete,” says Hillier. “The big thing that I challenged him to do is be a student of his event. When he first came, it was basically like, ‘Shut up Amlan and do this.’ And now he tells me about so and so 200m athlete is doing this training and should we try it. We discuss it and decide whatis the best course of action. He’s now very actively involved in the training process.” One of the downsides was that he had to give up on football. “His body is too fine-tuned for that now,” Hillier quips.

In his first race after joining the HPC, Borgohain clocked 21.89 seconds in the semi-final of the Indian University Championships in January 2020. The sprinter made a splash last September, when he won a gold medal with a timing of 20.75 seconds at the National Open Championships, in his first 200m final at the senior national level. With his coaching staff, including Hillier and physiotherapist Dr Nilesh Makwana, he set about trying to shave off more than 0.2 seconds off his timing and peak at the Federation Cup.

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“The target was always to run 20.50s and he ran 20.75s last year,” says Hillier. “In terms of distance, that roughly equates to two and a half metres. We identified that in the first 50m, there was at least one, one and a half metres that he could improve. Although he is very good at the end, we could improve on the last 50m as well. The 200m is a very tactical race; it’s not always the fastest person who wins. You need speed endurance for it; a human body can’t flat out sprint for 200m. Also, half of the race is on the bend. Amlan wasn’t a particularly good bend runner when he first came in. We have had to spend significant amount of time to teach him how to do that, particularly the first 50m.

“In training, we looked to raise everything, worked on his strength in the gym, improved his reactive strength and all these other qualities. Thankfully it came together very well. He had the best start I have ever seen him have.”

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During the Fed Cup, Borgohain came second in his heats, which meant he didn’t start the race in the best frame of mind. “I was depressed,” he says. “In the final, I was just thinking that I have to win this.” So he just flew off the blocks and ran an ‘effortless’ race to create a new national record. “Running is very simple,” he says. “If you run fast you don’t feel it.”

The national record is just the kind of affirming result Borgohain needed as he prepares to step up to internationals this year. In May, Borgohain will embark on a month-long tour of Europe, specifically designed to push him out of his comfort zone and experience new cultures, different climates and some stiff competition. 

“We want to get him travelling; that’s what the life of a professional athlete is,” says Hillier. The European tour is meant to get him in shape for the Inter State Championships, which will double up as the Asian Games qualifiers, in June. Borgohain will throw himself in the whirl of competition soon, but his ultimate goal remains becoming the first Indian to run the 100m under nine seconds. “I want to break that barrier,” he says. It’s dream at this point, but Borgohain is ready to go the distance.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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