Recently-crowned Asian 5000m champion G Lakshmanan has gifted himself a chance to meet and rub shoulders with his idol -- four-time Olympic champion Mohammed Farah.
By winning the long distance event at the Asian Athletics Championships 2017 on Thursday, July 6, the Indian sprinter has won a ticket for August's IAAF World Championships in London, which is expected to be Farah's swansong.
From Pudukottai to London
Lakshmanan, the 27-year-old, hailing from a farmer's family in Pudukkottai -- a small town in Tamil Nadu, has topped Federation Cup, a prominent senior national--level tournament in India, for four consecutive years. At 2015 Asian Athletics Championships in Wuhan, the distance runner won a bronze (5000m) and a silver (10,000m). Even after so much success at the continental level, an opportunity to compete at the world meet had eluded him until Thursday.
He began the 5000m race at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar with an outside chance of finishing on the top step of the podium as Saudi Arabia's Olympic runner Tariq Ahmed was the top seed with the best time of the season among the starters.
However, at the end of the race, it was the Tamil Nadu athlete who clinched gold with a timing of 14:54.48s, even as it was well below his personal best of 13:36:62s and his season best of 14:02.90s, which he ran to win the gold in Federation Cup 2017 last month in Patiala.
"I was confident about winning a gold yesterday. The wins in Wuhan motivated me to aim for better here. Yesterday, the crowd support was electrifying at the stadium. The roar from the stands motivated me to go for the medal even as I was running," Lakshmanan, who will also feature in Sunday's 10,000m, told International Business Times, India.
Lakshmanan says he is elated at the prospect of having a chance to race with his idol Farah and other Kenyan distance runners at the world meet in London next month.
The Tamil Nadu athlete's season best timing is well below the top-ranked timing of 12:55.23s set by Ethiopia's Muktar Edris. Farah has managed 13:00.70s this season.
"I am very excited to have a chance of running alongside my idol Farah. I want to achieve my personal best with a good performance at the world meet," he said.
On Thursday, Lakshmanan, who trains at Army Sports Institute in Pune, was following the pack without any front running attempts in hot and humid conditions in Odisha. With a powerful kick at the last 300m mark, the distance runner was able to leapfrog Yaser Salem of Qatar and Ahmed to clinch his first Asian Athletics Championships gold.
Former India Olympian and national distance running coach Surendra Singh, says the sudden burst during the closing stages of the race was a well-thought-out strategy. The humid conditions in Odisha also helped the Indian runner, according to the tactician.
"In the last 300m, he [Lakshmanan] went all out. We discussed these strategies. I wanted him to follow the Saudi Arabian runner as he had the best timing ahead of the race. I asked him to stay with him and not be bothered about what the Chinese and others did. It was a do or die in the final moments," Surendra said.
He added: "I knew very well he will win the medal before the race. I expected the humid conditions in Odisha to favour our runners. We came here well ahead of the event on July 2 and we had enough time to adapt to the conditions."
Lakshmanan says his feats would have been impossible without the help of his coach - Surendra, who now oversees his training at the national camp in Coonoor. He also has a special mention to his childhood mentor S Loganathan, whose daughter Suriya also is a national champion.
The athlete's father died when he was seven, but he was lucky enough to be adopted by Loganathan, who found a spark in the young boy. From the age of 15, the distance runner had been training at Youth Sports Club in Kavinadu near Pudukkottai.
While the feeling of competing with Farah has not sunk in yet for Lakshmanan, Surendra is already thinking about ways to get his ward ready for the world meet.
"Lakshmanan has the exposure of competing at international events. I don't think he will think about pressure. He is excited about running with Farah and other Kenyan racers. It is a great opportunity for him to compete with some of the best names," Surendra opined.
"There is still a few weeks remaining. I am thinking of focussing on speed training as it will help him at the world meet, just like it did on Thursday," he added.