When no one believed he had a chance to win a medal, lest a gold, Manjit Singh Chahal did the unthinkable when he won his first gold medal in the 800 meters event at the 2018 Asian Games at Jakarta.
Manjit Singh Chahal is nothing short of being a phoenix who rose from ashes and turned into gold. His incredible winning ways, record-setting exploit as well as qualification for the final as the eighth fastest runner has catapulted his fame, as well as made him a potential medalist for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Hailing from Haryana, with ample potential and an indispensable spark to carve a niche, Manjit is a middle-distance runner who specialises in the 800 metres and 1500 metres events. His humble beginnings with limited means got him no support from any sponsor or godfather; neither did he let his spate of bad luck over the years sidetrack his love for running. He simply made the most of what he had when it really mattered-he made history. He tells us more in this exclusive conversation.
Tell us about your early days, schooling, and education. Were you always inclined to athletics?
I belong to a family of farmers. Like any other child, I grew up herding cattle and running around empty fields with no real dream or passion. It was all fueled once I saw my father winning medals. I passed Class X and XII from SD Model School and Ch. Devi Lal School, Narwana, respectively. There I won many positions in the National School Games. In fact, I was one of the 15 students selected for the Sports Nursery at Narwana in 2003. The coaches, Mewa Singh and Karan Singh, recognized my potential as a distance runner and insisted that I join the Jalandhar Sports Academy after Class XII in 2005. After Jalandhar, I joined the NIS, Patiala, from 2010 to 2013 and the rest to use a cliché is history.
When did you realize you wanted to be an athlete?
I was exposed to athletics by my father Randhir Singh Chahal – a former state-level shot putter who now runs dairy business to sustain our family. I used to accompany him to different state-level athletics tournaments and saw him win several medals. This exposure propelled my decision to become a world-class athlete. As a child, I remember my father telling me; when I was five years old I started running, and I used to run with freedom on our farmland, climb hillocks, run to Jind town and bring groceries. I guess it was all there, I was born with it and it just needed to come out for the world to see. Also, my father took the initiative of taking me to the ground where I saw many people training. At first, it felt like a forced activity for me of going to the ground daily, but eventually I realised even I wanted to train and take up running professionally.
What challenges did you face when you decided to be an athlete and how did you overcome them?
Life always gives us two choices. Either we can run away from our problems or we can run towards our dreams. There will always be challenges in our way, how we choose to overcome them is what defines us. I come from a very humble family with limited means. I did not have any sponsor or godfather to back me. However, I made the most of what I had. I started as a distance runner in the year 2013 and made my mark at the Federation Cup in 2014. Sadly, back in 2010, when I ran the Commonwealth Games and finished last in my semifinal, I not only lost the race but my job as well. I was also unfortunately plagued by injuries for a couple of years, which is a lot for an athlete but I did not lose focus. There was a time when I had reached the peak of my frustration, but after meeting my coach Amrish Kumar, I gained perspective. He urged me to channel my frustration towards my own good. I remember, when I requested him to train me, he said ‘You will have to forget everything and focus on just training’. My coach dedicated all his time and energy in training me. A lot of attention was focused on improving my timing for the Asian Games. At the centre, most of the trainees would take holidays but neither my coach nor me went to our homes for two years. So much so, that even when my son was born I did not go home to see him. This is the level of dedication you need when you want to win. These are the challenges you need to overcome if you want to win.
How do you train to keep fit? Please explain.
It is sheer hard work because I am training 24X7. Physically I train for seven to eight hours every day and mentally I am constantly thinking about training and ways of improving myself. I run even in my dreams. While training in the morning, I am simultaneously thinking of my next training session. I watch videos of the races in which I had failed in order to remind myself of what I needed to do right to win. I also feel inspired by watching videos and reading about the journey of sports personalities such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Michael Jordan.
After winning so many silver medals did you ever worry why you could not finish first? Did this ever affect you negatively?
‘Second-only’ is what was expected from me and this is actually a fact. Maybe for the longest time, even I thought that I will clinch the silver everywhere but never gold. But then I would constantly remind myself of the promise I made to my father. He once asked me to run one race that the world would remember me for and I agreed. I knew this would only be possible by finishing first and getting a gold medal. While preparing and running for the Asian Games, I kept reminding myself of that promise again and again. This reminder was the push, rather motivation I needed to run towards victory.
Your Asian Gold came when no one expected it. Please take us through what was going on in your mind then.
It was not an easy win, because I was not leading for the most part of the race. Indian runners and my competition in most races Johnson Jinson and Abdalla Abubaker from Qatar were busy in their own tussle. Nobody expected a person like me who had an uneventful domestic season in the last few years to suddenly get the better of them. I do not clearly recall what was going on in my head because I was only focused on reaching my goal, the finish line. But, all I remember was I had to give it my best as this was the only opportunity I had. I simply put in every ounce of energy and spirit in me to leap ahead of my opponents, clock and win, perhaps, the most important race of my life.
Tell us about your diet and how important it is for an athlete like you.
My diet consists of almonds and milk plus homemade ladoos. These foods are excellent sources of energy needed to power athletes like us throughout the day. I only drink hot water so that there is not fat gain and my sugar intake is almost zero. Such disciplined meal plans are extremely vital for a win. They help us perform at the highest level.
What is your advice to aspiring athletes?
You have to give everything to whatever you do. Being an athlete entails lots of choices, sacrifices, and above all, dedication because if living this lifestyle was easy then everyone would do it.
What do you like doing when not training?
When free, I love to help my father in his agriculture and dairy business. I also love to spend time listening to music and going on long drives.
Tell us something about you that people do not know.
I am very fond of playing volleyball. It helps me keep fit. Also, even if I am dead tired after training I make sure I grind almonds and have them with milk. I make sure I eat well.
This story first appeared in Smartlife Jan 2019 issue here: SL_0119_18-20_Manjit Singh