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B Soumya breaks national record in 20km race walk

AFI

There was a surprise in store for spectators at the conclusion of the women's 20km event at the National Race Walking Championships in New Delhi.

After 19 of 20 laps, the lead appeared secure in the hands of the favourite - Olympian and Asian Games silver medalist Khushbir Kaur. Yet, at the very end, almost out of nowhere, it was the entirely unheralded athlete B Soumya who chested the winning tape. What's more, she had just set a new national record - 1:31:28 seconds - breaking Kaur's old mark of 1:31:40 seconds. The time was enough to secure a place in the Commonwealth Games squad for her first international tournament.

For the most part of the race, Soumya had been a distant second. More than a few felt there must have been some mistake here. The 27-year-old had never even come close to that mark in the past - her previous best of 1:41:04 was nearly 10 minutes slower. Race officials checked and then crosschecked their notes. Had they missed a lap? They hadn't.

Even Soumya couldn't believe it. "I wasn't aware I was so close to the record. I never thought I would break it. I don't know how to explain it," she exclaimed on learning of her achievement.

Her mother, Baby, would try to make sense of it. "All this is God's way," she said later. While Soumya was cutting seconds off the record in the national capital, her family - father Dasan and brother Sabin - had been at Sunday service in Church in the village of Vattapara in Trivandrum. "The entire morning we had been praying for her and our prayers have been answered," she said.

Faith is significant for the family in as much that it explains several of the turns that Soumya's life took. Few might have expected Soumya to ever become an athlete. Money was always tight in the household with father Dasan earning what he could as a daily wager. It was a hard life.

"He used to break stones. He always had health problems and working in such conditions was always dangerous. But even though he used to get serious injuries, he used to still get up and go to work," says Baby.

A career in sports was a nearly unthinkable expense. "Soumya was always interested in sports but we were struggling and we couldn't afford it."

Help came from a mysterious benefactor. "In her early days, she got funding from a foreigner through our church. There was a church that used to teach kids near our home, so from third standard onwards we had this guy from abroad as her sponsor. We never met the person and we connected only through letters. That's how she got her funding," she says.

Soumya would pick up the mantle on her own. In class eight, she secured a scholarship to the Kerala Sports Hostel in Kollam. Current Deputy National coach Radhakrishan Nair was head of the hostel then. "I remember her as this small girl who was very determined. She initially started as a 3000m runner but then became a race walker," he says.

Money would continue to be a hurdle once she entered college. "We paid the education fees as much as we could, and the sports related expenses were always taken care of but we could not pay for food expenses," Baby says. Once again, providence would intervene. Another coach, G Thangachan, would sponsor her nutrition. "He knew our financial difficulties and knowing that, he helped a lot," says Soumya.

Economic woes would only subside somewhat when Soumya secured a job in the CRPF in 2013. With her salary as a constable, she now pays not just for her own expenses as an athlete but also for her family. "It's only because of her job that we are not starving at home," says her mother.

With some financial stability in place, Soumya would eventually secure a place in the Indian national camp in 2016. There, in Bangalore, she quickly made a name for herself. "Her technique is one of the best among Indian walkers. There are others who do well in India but can't do well outside because their incorrect technique is spotted by judges," says walking coach Alexander Artsybashev.

It was that ability that Artsybashev says caused him to persist with her even when she suffered a knee injury at the end of her first year at the national camp.

"I suffered the injury because I was not used to training under the coach. I was not used to putting in that kind of work. It took me three months to recover from the injury. Since then I have adapted to the training and only got stronger," Soumya says.

While she had mostly flown under the radar, her performance on Sunday has changed all of that. Her timing is the third fastest amongs competitors who will compete at the Commonwealth Games, and just five seconds off the fastest. These are expectations she is confident of dealing with.

"I didn't think I would be able to break a national record but I was able to. Now I will try to do even better at the Commonwealth Games."