Suraj Panwar gets big shoes, and fills them with silver

Race walker Suraj Panwar (Left) is only the third Indian to win a silver across all editions of Youth Olympics. AFI

As he returned to his room in the Games Village on Monday evening, Suraj Panwar carefully packed his racing shoes away. This pair of dark blue Asics Tartherzeal 4 is special to him. For it's in them that the 17-year-old racewalker has just won a silver medal at the Youth Olympics, the first by an Indian athlete at this Games and just the third across all editions.

Panwar has done well by any standard. His timing of 20.35.87 in the first of two stages of the 5000m race was a personal best and he improved on that with 20.23.30 en route to winning the second stage.

The shoes are near perfect for racewalking. At 170 grams, they are incredibly lightweight; the insole is hard and stiff, while the sole is customized to grip to track. There's just one aspect of these shoes that isn't just right for Panwar. It's the size.

That's because the shoes didn't originally belong to him.

They were originally owned by Manish Rawat, who had finished 13th in the 20km racewak event at the 2016 Rio Olympics. "Manish bhai gave me the shoes. We aren't the same size. I am a size 7 and he is a size 7.5 but I can adjust to them," says Panwar over the phone from Buenos Aires.

Quite simply, Panwar couldn't afford the Rs.10000 the fancy footwear costs.

"Money has always been a problem," says Panwar. The youngest of three sons, he lost his father soon after his birth. "My father was a guard in the forest department. He was killed in an accident when I was about six months old. After his death, my mother got a job with the forest department. She waters plants at the department's office and she's supporting all of us."

Panwar's dreams of becoming a sportsperson initially seemed out of reach.

"Even when he was a child he wanted to be a sportsperson. His school PT teacher felt he had the potential to be a walker so he advised him to train under coach Anoop Bisht," recalls elder brother Shubham.

Bisht was known as someone who had produced several high class racewalkers (including the Olympian Rawat). But when a 13-year-old Panwar approached the senior coach, there was a problem. "At that time I was training athletes in Pithoragarh. Suraj's is from Karbari (a village near Dehradun) which is nearly 500 kilometers away. His family didn't have the money to send him so far away," recalls Bisht.

The youngster's luck turned when Bisht was posted to the Maharana Pratap Sports School in Dehradun in 2016. Panwar was selected to the school that year and following a medal at the youth nationals, was admitted to the residential facilities.

Yet, there were other expenses that had to be taken care of. "It's always been difficult for me to manage my sport. My family is not strong financially. They help as much as they can. My mother will make it a point to send Rs 2000 to me each month. Any good quality shoes cost at least Rs 5000 but I can't even ask them for money because they are already giving what they can," says Panwar.

The lack of appropriate footwear has hurt him quite literally. "When I don't have a proper shoe, I use what I can get. When I was training I was using a Star Impact shoe which I had bought from a local market. It's only about Rs 500 but it isn't a proper racewalking shoe so when I was doing my training I picked up a strain in my knee. Because of that I wasn't able to take part in the Khelo India School Games. If I had won a medal there, it would have taken care of a lot of my financial difficulties," he says.

Despite the setbacks, Panwar persisted. He was the fastest youth athlete at the Junior Federation Cup earlier this year and qualified for the Youth Olympics after he finished with a silver medal at the Asian Youth Championships in Bangkok. And seeing his potential, he has found support from his seniors, particularly Rawat. "Manish bhai has always helped me out. He had just come back from the Commonwealth Games when he found out I didn't have proper shoes. He didn't wait for anyone, he just opened his door and gave me his shoes," says Panwar.

Coach Bisht says the youngster's positivity is his strongest suit. "He has had to struggle every inch of the way so he's always eager to take part in big tournaments. He didn't have any fears before going to the Youth Olympics and even after he won he told me 'Sir, even if I am not able to be ready for the 2020 Olympics, I'll do something special at the 2024 Games."

Panwar is confident he will be able to progress physically and technically for those games. He's also hopeful he won't be wondering about his kit at that point of time.

"I'll have my own shoes by then also."