Underdog Manjit Singh returns home Asiad champion and proud father


What must you sacrifice to make your dream come true?

There is a picture on Manjit Singh Chahal's phone, that he looks at everyday. It's one of little Abir Chahal. The baby is sleeping soundly, as five-months-old do. The screen is the closest Manjit has been to his son. There is nothing Manjit wants more than to hold him. He never has.

"Can you imagine what it is like for a father to not see his newborn son? I've wanted so much to meet him and hold him in my hands," he says.

The picture is a reminder of what Manjit has had to do to get to where he is. It is part of the price paid to journey himself up from the depths of despair and climb onto the top of the podium at the Asian Games.

Two years ago, Manjit was out of options. He was 27 years old and his career had seemingly come to a dead end. He still remembers the date when he was told he was done.

"On March 31, I was told my sports contract with ONGC would not be renewed," he says. "They told me I wasn't having any performance of value and that I was too old to improve," says the son of dairy farmers from Haryana's Jind. "No one believed in me then. Very frankly I was depressed."

He has performance of the utmost value now. On Tuesday, at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Manjit ran the race of his life to clinch a gold medal in the men's 800m race. Winning with a personal best time of 1:46:15 seconds, Manjit became only the first Indian man to win the 800m event since Charles Borromeo in 1982.

Running in lane two, he trailed for most of the race, boxed in by others including Indian record holder Jinson Johnson. Then, with 50 metres to go, he burst from the containing pack, past the pre-race favourites and into history.

It's fair to say Manjit was not favoured to win.

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Manjit has never won an international medal prior to the Asian gold, and his last national title came in 2013. Back in 2010, he had run the Commonwealth Games and finished dead last in his semifinal. While his early results had earned him a stipend with ONGC, as his results petered away, so did the job offer.

"I was on stipend for three years and then on March 31, they told me I wasn't going to be made permanent," he says."I was almost ready to quit the sport then. I was 27 and still taking support from my parents."

No one believed in him, except his parents and army chief coach Amrish Kumar. While Manjit wasn't a member of the Army, Kumar still decided to work with him.

"He was desperate. He said 'Sir, I don't have a place to go. Please help me out.' I had seen him as a junior and I knew he had the talent. Of course he was running very poorly then. Only about 1:52:00," says Kumar.

All that the coach wanted was commitment. "I told him if he gave me two years of his life, he would win an Asian Games gold medal. I asked if he would leave his family and train with me. And he said yes . I asked if he would give up everything to train with me and he said yes. And that was when I knew he would win a gold."

And so Manjit followed Kumar to the national camp in Ooty. Since he was not a part of the national camp, he had to pay for his own stay. It cost him Rs 30,000 a month, which he couldn't afford.

"I didn't have any money so I borrowed from my family. My father is a milk seller and the only working member of my family, but he managed to arrange the funds," Manjit says.

However, everything did not immediately fall into place. Manjit failed to qualify for the 2017 Asian Championships. Nor did he make the squad for the 2018 Commonwealth Games following a second place finish at the Federation Cup on March 6.

But there was no doubting his commitment. March 6 was also the day of the birth of his son Abir.

"I had promised Amrish sir that I would only return home after I achieved my goal. So I stayed away and trained with him only," says Manjit.

"I was driven only with the thought of winning the Asian Games gold medal. I watched videos of the races in which I had failed to remind myself of what I needed to do right in order to win."

He moved a step closer to his goal when he qualified for the Asian Games following a second place finish at the Inter State Athletics Championships in Guwahati. Manjit had timed a personal best run of 1:46.24 seconds. That mark was overshadowed by Johnson, who had used Manjit as a pace setter in order to set a new national record of 1:45:65 seconds.

Despite missing out on a gold then, Manjit and coach Kumar were not perturbed. "The goal was the Asian Games. We wanted to peak over there and that's what we did," says Kumar.

Manjit almost never qualified for the final, only making it in eighth place in the unfavourable second lane. Yet he never had any doubt about his result. "I was telling sir over the last two days that I was only here to win gold."

The medal won, he now has another goal. It involves changing diapers and staying up late.

"I want to meet my son. I want to show him my gold and let him know what his father achieved."