Editor's note - On Friday night at Doha's Khalifa Stadium, Avinash Sable earned a direct qualification spot for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He clocked a time of 8:21.37 in the final of the 3000m steeplechase, inside the qualification standard of 8:22.00. That time was also a new national record erasing the mark of 8:25.23 he had set just a couple of days ago in the heats of the same tournament.
This is his story.
When Avinash Sable first broke the 24-year-old national record -- the oldest standing one in track -- in the 3000m steeplechase last year, he had accomplished what had seemed to be the toughest task in Indian athletics.
If that wasn't hard enough, Sable would go ahead and shave nearly a second off his own record that stood at 8:29.80 by clocking 8:28.94 at the Federation Cup in Patiala on Monday.
Each of those accomplishments was challenging, but as even Sable will admit, in the pleasant evening weather of springtime Punjab, neither of those challenges was nearly as difficult as the year and a half he spent as a soldier fighting on the Siachen glacier. The posting as part of the 5th battalion of the Mahar regiment was the first of the then 18-year-old's career.
No acclimatisation could prepare Sable, who had grown up in sunny Mandwa in Maharashtra's Beed district, for his first day on the icy, inhospitable terrain 5400 metres above sea level. Where exposure to the harsh elements kills more soldiers than enemy fire.
The first day was the hardest, with the loneliness to start with. "There was no way to talk to my family and because I was a junior, I didn't even know whom to talk to," he says. Then, of course, there was the cold. "I had never even seen snow before I went to Siachen. And there was snow everywhere. Even the water tank we used for everything had ice. It was always minus something degrees. There wasn't anything known as warmth there!" says Sable.
Sable is honest in his confession that his interest in sports was piqued not long after that first, punishing deployment. "I felt I could do something else also. I picked up sport so I didn't have to do duties like at Siachen. Yeh duty mere se nahi hogi (I won't be able to do this sort of duty). When I was posted in (the garrison town of) Lalgarh Jattan, the other soldiers told me I should go and do sports and particularly running because I was always good in those training drills at the center," says Sable.
Following a posting to Sikkim, the routine of guard duty and little other activity saw him pack on the pounds -- he put on nearly 16 kilograms. Unsurprisingly, when he first took part in the inter-unit cross-country competition, he injured himself. It was only through sheer determination that he shed the excess weight over two months and then competed once again in that cross-country race.
His natural talent was obvious and Sable eventually earned a place in the Services cross-country team whom he helped to first place in the national cross-country championships of 2017.
It was around that time that he first came in contact with the chief coach of the Army distance-running program, Amrish Singh, who introduced him to the steeplechase event.
Amrish says Sable was talented owing to where he came from. Sable's village in rural Maharashtra had no good roads, which meant he had to run wherever he had to go. "Because he's done so much running as a youngster he already had that strength and endurance," says Amrish.
Sable was soon part of the national camp under Nikolai Snesarev, and the 70-year-old Belarusian who had guided Indian long-distance runners to multiple national records seemed to have found the potential in him to create another world-class athlete.
In his zeal to prepare Sable for the Olympics, though, Snesarev pushed too hard. Sable suffered an ankle fracture and while the results did seem to be coming with him setting the national record last year, the unrelenting workload eventually caused him to return to training under Amrish.
The move hasn't hurt yet and Amrish feels Sable has the potential to make a mark at the international level. "Avinash's injury last year took nearly a year off his growth," he says. "But he is an athlete who can run in the 8:15.00 range. Should he get a pace setter like he will in international competitions, he will definitely get there. If India is to win a track medal at the Olympics, Avinash is in that category."
With the steeplechase bronze at the 2016 summer Olympics going at 8:11.52, a medal isn't going to be easy for Sable.
While a medal on the Olympic track is anything but easy, deployment on the world's highest battlefield has taught him he can manage it. And while he once turned to athletics to escape the rigours of the Siachen, Sable says he knows both have their own challenges. "If the army wants me to go to Siachen again I will but I want to do this as well," he says. "There also I was serving the country, aur yaha se bhi desh ka naam hai (and here also I am making a name for the country)."