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How race walker Ram Baboo trained to qualify for the Paris Olympics

Race walker Ram Baboo beat the odds to qualify for the Paris Olympics later this year. He tells Lounge how he trained to do it

Race walker Ram Baboo.
Race walker Ram Baboo. (Getty Images)

Around the 16km mark at the Dudinska 50 meet earlier this month, Ram Baboo realised he was losing track of the leading pack. Until then, he had maintained an average pace of 3.56-3.57 minutes over each kilometre of the 20km race walk event to trail them by about 17 seconds. But after slowing down over the next kilometre, the gap had now widened to 23 seconds. The pressure was mounting and he felt the need for a solid push to salvage his race.

The conditions didn’t make things any easier. From the searing mornings when he trained at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, he had landed in Dudince in Slovakia, where the race day temperature hovered around the 7 degree Celsius mark. An unexpected downpour before the start meant freezing conditions and a wet track that made the going tough. 

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“When I realised my form was dipping, I broke down a little bit. But deep within, I knew I had put in the work and was confident of my abilities. My coach, Basanta saab (Basanta Bahadur Rana) was also present at the venue and made me believe that I could bounce back. So, I made peace with the fact that either I would make my target or else I would have to only come back stronger,” Baboo, 25, says. 

Over the last four kilometres, Baboo went for broke and by the time he reached the finish line, his time of 1:20:00 not only fetched him bronze, but he had also made the qualification mark (1:21:10) for the Paris Olympics. He is now the seventh Indian race walker to make the cut alongside Akshdeep Singh, Suraj Panwar, Arshpreet Singh, Pramjeet Bisht, Vikas Singh and Suraj Panwar. Only three of these athletes will make the start line of the Summer Games in July; Baboo currently has the third fastest time behind Akshdeep Singh and Panwar. 

The result comes as a relief for Baboo, who missed out on qualification after a dismal performance at the South Asian & Indian Open Race Walking Championship in Chandigarh in January. It was where Akshdeep Singh set a new national record of 1:19:38 and made the qualifying mark alongside two others. Baboo, who was returning to competition after having picked up bronze in the mixed 35km team event at the Hangzhou Asian Games last year, could only finish sixth with a time of 1:21:04.

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“The off season was good and I had put in a lot of work coming into the Chandigarh event. So I was quite disappointed with my performance,” he recalls.

His mother, Meena Devi, handed him words of consolation and made him believe that the results would come. Baboo returned to his base and under Rana, spent the next four weeks working on his speed and technique. He utilised his past experience of having competed in the 35km and 50km events to gear up for the shorter race. His eyes were on the Dudinska 50, the same competition where he had set a new national record in the 35km race walk event last year. 

“The preparation this time was quite different, since the Olympics features the 20km race. The focus was on speed, rather than mileage and endurance. And it was a lot harder because I had to sustain the pace to keep up with competition right until the end,” Baboo says. 

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With Olympic qualification in the bag, there’s momentary relief for Baboo. He hopes to reunite with the Indian contingent that has been training at a camp in South Africa. But he’s also aware that the next few weeks will be critical if he wants to be picked as part of the trio going to the Olympics. It will all come down to the performance that he puts in at the World Athletics Race Walking Team Championship in Turkey in late April. 

“Things are going well as of now. The training plan I’ve been following over the last few weeks has worked for me and I want to stick with it. All my attention will be on technique here on,” he says. 

Baboo is well aware of what it’s taken to get to this stage of his career. Hailing from Bahuara in the Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, he started his journey in athletics as a marathoner, before transitioning to race walking. During the early days, he waited tables and did other odd jobs when he had time off from training. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he took up manual labour alongside his father, Chhote Lal, to make ends meet. 

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In March 2021, his sporting achievements finally earned him a job with the Indian Army, where he currently holds the rank of Havaldar. Things are looking up these days, a result of the hard miles he’s been putting in on the field. A promotion is in the pipeline, the family’s situation has improved and he is also constructing a new home for them.

Mujhe pata hai ki jitne bade sapne hote hai, utne hi bade sacrifices karne padte hai (To dream big, you need to make big sacrifices). It’s a huge responsibility to represent India and I know it requires a lot of work to be at your best on race day. I often feel like going home to spend time with my family, but I know it’s not possible if one has goals to achieve. My next break will only be after the Olympics,” he says.

It means every day is training day and his birthday on March 20 last week was no different. He was up early to take on the grind that the day had in store. And after a brief celebration with his coach and teammates that evening, he hit the sack to continue dreaming of the Olympics.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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