Hips don't lie: How KT Irfan achieved his walk of fame

'Race walking changed my entire life' (3:38)

India's first athlete to qualify for Tokyo 2020 - KT Irfan - on his race walking journey (3:38)

For a town known to be in love with football, KT Irfan's sport was seen as an aberration.

The hip swaying, duck waddle of race walking - remember Billy Crystal walking funny in his spandex through Central Park in When Harry Met Sally? - doesn't help with the perception of the sport.

Growing up, Irfan dabbled in multiple sports - hammer throw, javelin throw, football, long jump ­- but race walking was not one among them. The land of Sevens Football, Malabar, was his home. Shipped to the state by the British and spawned by the lack of large playing grounds, Sevens, as the name suggests, has teams broken into seven players each drawn from local clubs as well as overseas, mainly Africa, pitched in hotly-fought 60-minute contests.

From November through May every year, villages and towns in North Kerala - Kozhikode, Malappuram, Kasaragod, Wayanad and Kannur - come alive to the beats of Sevens. Irfan rarely misses a match when he visits home, joining in for practice and kicking around the ball with kids at the Prabhat Sports Club.

In March this year, Irfan, 29, became the first Indian athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with a fourth-place finish in the 20 km walk at the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi Japan, 15 months ahead of the Games.

The generous preparation time, Irfan says, has "freed him" mentally. Along with fellow race walker Devender Singh, Irfan holds the national record in the 20km event at 1:20:21. The 2020 qualifying mark stands at 1:21.

"It's a tough mark," Irfan says. "Not too many walkers have breached it in India so large participation numbers at next year's Olympics may be hard to achieve. I actually went to Nomi with the smaller goal of qualifying (qualifying standard 1:22:30) for the September World Championships in Doha, so it was a massive bonus to make the cut for both. The weather was really nice, I think that helped a lot."

Irfan's introduction to race walking came when his elder brother's best friend Rebas Mosahi was picked for the National School Games in 2005. Irfan joined him on practice rounds, stocked up on water bottles and a tiny notepad where he would scribble finish timings for Rebas.

Irfan's close friend and school senior KP Salman had also taken to the sport on an unexpected veer from daily punishment rounds circling the perimeter of the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School in Kizhuparamba.

"Race walkers, with their low pumping arm action, must twist their hips to almost 20 degrees as opposed to the usual rotation of 4 degrees for non-walkers. In addition, they must lower their center of gravity for a smoother gait and to keep to a straight line, which brings about the awkward rotation of the hips."

"Our PE teacher Jose sir one evening asked us to take 25 rounds of the ground as punishment for creating a ruckus in class," Salman recalls. "At the end of it, we still weren't tired. It may have been stamina or we were just an adamant bunch of teens who didn't want to give up. Either way, he was impressed and asked us to attend regular walking practice after school."

Slowly, despite resistance from parents, Salman became serious about race walking. He started picking up medals at amateur competitions while Irfan still struggled to make the podium in either hammer throw or long jump. That's when Salman suggested that Irfan switch to race walking.

"He (Irfan) was always physically strong. He would run 3000m and 5000m effortlessly. So we thought it was a good idea if he also joined, that way we could practice together," says Salman.

In the beginning, when the duo set out on their early morning practice walks in Kuniyil, they were subjected to plenty of ridicule, especially from people seated in wooden benches in roadside tea stalls, who were bemused by full-grown boys walking past them with an exaggerated swiveling of hips.

Irfan and Salman withstood a torrent of jokes. Some queried why they did not pick a sport which didn't have them swaying their behinds, while others wondered if the boys had been shunted to walking because they were not good enough to sprint.

In 2007, Irfan completed his first 20 km race walk, in two hours and five minutes.

"When I came into race walking our financial condition was zero," Irfan explains. "We had nothing. It is only through whatever I've achieved in sport that we're in a better place today."

Irfan's father was a daily wager whose primary job was collecting coconuts from the region and drying it for copra (dried kernels) to be then supplied to oil mills for extraction of oil. Irfan, too, joined in sometimes, husking the coconuts, breaking them open, draining out the water and leaving them to dry under the sun.

The same year, Irfan moved to SAI, Kozhikode and trained under coach A Bose. Three years later, when SAI began weeding out non-performing athletes, Irfan's coach advised him to look out for a job since there were chances that he too might be asked to leave. Irfan traveled to Kochi that year to participate in the Senior State Championships, where he ran into a team from the Indian army's Madras regiment in Ooty. Their coach, Jalan PS, was also a race walker and fellow Keralite.

"He asked me if I was interested in joining the army. Back then army wasn't seen as such a great career prospect. Today all the support I have in the sport is because of army."

Once Irfan joined the army, in 2010, his race walking picked pace and medals began trickling in.

He featured in his first army sports meet in October 2010, winning gold in the 20 km walk before moving to the Southern Command in Hyderabad. In June 2011, he walked to silver at the inter-state championship in Bengaluru, his first medal at the national level.

Then came the Olympic-sized crater.

Irfan qualified for the 20km walk at the 2012 London Games but had no shoes. Race walkers are not fans of the clunky trainers runners use. To suit their gait, shoes need to be lightweight, low heel with a flexible midsole and can be priced anywhere between INR 7000 and INR 10000.

"Around that time there was no support at all," Irfan says. "Actor Mohanlal was the brand ambassador of Kerala athletics at that time and he called me after seeing a news report in a Malayalam newspaper asking what kind of assistance I needed. My only request to him was to arrange a sponsor but he assured me he would take care of my expenses of shoes and kit. He lived up to his word and I didn't have worry about any of it."

On August 2, 2012, the day of his race, village members in Kuniyil pitched in to set up a make-shift projector screen near the courtyard of his home.

Thousands of miles away In London, Irfan began slow and hovered in 27th place after the 6 km mark. As all race walking events take place in the streets, Irfan had to start and finish at The Mall, a road in Westminster between Buckingham Palace at its west and Trafalgar square to the east. Over the next two kilometers, Irfan gained in pace, even moving up to fifth at the 8-km mark in the 56-man field.

"All I could think of during the race was people back in my village huddled before the projector, waiting to catch a glimpse of me," he says. "I kept telling myself, they aren't going to be able to spot me if I'm crowded out in the late pack, so I have to speed up'. That's how I moved up to the front and finished with a national record."

At 1:20:21, the feat in London still stands as Irfan's best-ever timing; the bronze went to China's Zhen Wang for clocking 1:19:25.

Irfan reached his hometown Areekode to a burst of celebrations. It was around the time of Eid, and everyone was hit by a wave of joy. Roads leading up to his home were choked by close friends, relatives, those he barely knew and even many he had never seen, hugging, garlanding, feeding him sweets and thanking him for the occasion he had brought upon them. It was an outpouring of joy. For Irfan, it was well worth a medal.

Step length and cadence (step frequency) are the two primary performance determinants in race walking. The latter, Irfan counts among his crucial strengths. He junks the jargon and just refers to it as "frequency". The speed of your walk is essentially your stride length multiplied by your stride frequency. From the time the forward foot touches the ground, the knee must be kept straight until it passes under the body and one feet must stay in contact with the ground at all times. It leads to the hip rotation and distinct stride of race walking.

Race walkers, with their low pumping arm action, must twist their hips to almost 20 degrees as opposed to the usual rotation of 4 degrees for non-walkers. In addition, they must lower their center of gravity for a smoother gait and to keep to a straight line, which brings about the awkward rotation of the hips.

The infractions for losing contact of either feet with ground or for a bending a knee can be seen as harsh. For instance, Australia's Jane Saville was disqualified minutes before she walked her way to gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics for both feet being off the ground.

The judging process is entirely on the human eye and is littered with disqualifications. After three warnings, a walker is pulled out of the race. In four previous editions of the Olympics alone, a total of 48 race walkers, across both 20km and 50km events, have been disqualified.

Since the event is not tech-handled, it also leaves a gaping loophole. The rules stipulate disqualification if a "visible" loss of contact occurs. The "flight time" - when neither foot is in contact with the ground - is the aspect most elite walkers learn to circumvent. It is understood that elite walkers can sneak in up to 40 milliseconds of flight time on each step, which is too quick for judges to pick up on but enough for the athletes to quicken pace and improve timings.

The question is when your competition time spills into hours, what do you tell yourself during the race? Does the mind wander? Irfan ushers us into his competition-mode thoughts.

"You have so much time that you literally can think of everything - the last fight I had with my wife, what I can buy my son for his next birthday, whether my parents might be watching me right then, to entire songs and movies which just run in my head on auto-pilot mode. It's pretty crazy."

Race walking can be traced back to 16th century England, when noblemen would wager large sums on races arranged between their footmen. "Pedestrianism" as it was called then, moved to America in the 1800s and soon turned into a spectacle.

Back home in Kerala, Irfan believes that over the years, the sport has come to be seen for than more just its "wiggle".

"Earlier, the understanding of the sport in Kerala was little and people looked at you with disdain. Now, people look forward to seeing us walking and even often come up to me and ask when we are practicing next or how they can also take up the sport. So there is love and appreciation. It's an event that has totally transformed my life."

After the London Olympics, non-profit Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) pitched in with support but Irfan ran into some tough luck at major events. The plan was to breach his national record at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon. Irfan had been prepping hard for it in the run-up in the high-altitude facility of Dharamshala, but ended up developing stress fracture on his right ankle from training overload and lack of vitamins, eventually finishing fourth with a timing of 1:23:14.

After the blow, came the sucker punch.

At the Open Race Walking Championships in Jaipur, he finished fourth, well inside the Rio qualifying mark of 1:24:00 with a timing of 1:22:45. But just when he was getting ready for his second Olympic appearance, an old hamstring injury made an ill-timed return and he missed the flight to Rio.

His misfortunes weren't over yet.

Irfan was thrown into the middle of some serious bad press during the 2018 Commonwealth Games after his roommate, triple jumper Rakesh Babu, was found to be in possession of a syringe. In keeping with the Games' "no needle policy", Babu was asked to leave the Games village and Irfan, by virtue of sharing room space, had to share the burden of complicity. His competition was over by then, but Irfan's name was pasted across Australian tabloids and the local press back home was unforgiving.

"I had nothing to do with the syringe but since I was slightly more popular of the two of us, my name made it to headlines everywhere. One of the local channels in Kerala even ran a flash news that I would be banned for life. My event was already over when this happened, why would I dope?

"It was so unfair and untrue. Even the maximum ban for doping is four years. Here I was innocent and people were talking about my career being over. It was one of the most painful episodes of my life."

Then came the disappointment of the Asian Games four months later, as Irfan was disqualified at the 12km mark along with fellow Indian walker Manish Rawat for loss of contact with the ground.

The idea, Irfan says, is to keep pace with the first bench of walkers.

"In most of my competitions, I'm usually part of that pack for the first 15kms. Only after that, once the muscles tighten, I end up falling a bit behind. But in the last 5kms the focus is always to catch up with the guys in front."

Overall, At the 20km walk in the Rio Games, the men were 4.1% slower in the second half. Only 11 of the participants, which included the top nine, recorded negative splits.

"Earlier, when you asked anyone who wanted to get into sport, no one would say race walking. I've seen that change slowly. It could be out of a perception that it is a relatively easier sport.

"You can also see the rise in numbers at national events. Earlier there would be a maximum of four or five female walkers and around 20-25 male walkers at national championships, now the figure is anywhere between 50-100.

"At the last Nationals in Chennai, they had to hold the race walking event in two batches because of the large number of participants. So the numbers give us hope."

Competing next at the World Championships in Doha, Irfan says, would not be too different from a "home" ground feel. He is alluding to the massive Kerala diaspora in the Gulf, numbering over two million.

"I'm hoping lots of people from Kerala turn up to watch. My brother works in Doha and has never seen me compete at an international event. He has told all his friends so a large group could tag along. I'll listen out for the cheers in Malayalam. There's no greater joy."

Irfan's friend Salman no longer chugs on the Kuniyil streets. He has long drifted away from race walking, shifting his focus to completing his dentistry course and running his own clinic. He does not accompany Irfan on practice walks anymore.

"Now," says Salman, "I would need to run to keep pace with Irfan's walk."