When Amlan Borgohain was down in the dumps after an uncharacteristically poor race on Tuesday, he didn't have to think too hard for a source of motivation to will him forward. All he had to do was to look to the case of his mobile phone. Pasted there, next to '20.50' -- the 200m time that he'd set as a target -- is a blue and pink decal of a spiky haired character that's unmistakable to anime fans.
Channeling Goku, the lead protagonist of the cult classic Dragonball Z, Borgohain would come back in the most striking way possible with a national record.
If you saw Borgohain running the 200m at the Federation Cup in Kozhikode, you'd think there was nothing easier for him to do. At the race finals on Wednesday, he started off the blocks perfectly, accelerated past his compatriots and coasted to the finish line in a blistering new national record of 20.52 seconds.
Just a day ago though, Borgohain was in turmoil. After a poor start, he finished second in his heats - in an event he was the favourite to win. "It was a horrible race. I was going through hell. I was feeling terrible," he would say later.
His friends and coaches tried to reason with him. "Coach [James Hillier - who spearheads the Reliance Track Foundation in Odisha where Borgohain trains] said I had all the ability in my body. That it was all in my head," he says.
Ultimately, though, the 23-year-old from Assam needed something to calm himself down and for that he turned on his laptop to binge watch DragonBall Z. "In the series, Goku is someone who keeps improving himself when he fights until he final achieves ultra [a temporarily transformed state in which Goku achieves nearly unstoppable power]. I felt I have to be like Goku. So I have to step out on the field and be a brave guy," he says.
Borgohain has been a fan of the Japanese classic since his childhood. "I used to love watching it back when I didn't have cable TV. Now with internet, I can watch it anytime I want," he says.
While Borgohain has been an avid anime watcher for many years, athletics came to him relatively late in life. His earliest (and he admits his primary) love was football. "When I was in class 8. I was told by an older friend that I'm quite tall and strongly built. He said I could be a very good sprinter. But at that time I didn't want to do it because I really wanted to be a footballer. I've always been a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo. That's who I wanted to be," he says.
It wasn't an idle dream. Borgohain played as an attacking midfielder and had competed at the national level with his school in Hyderabad. Eventually though a series of bandaged ankles courtesy eager opposition defenders caused his mother to put her foot down and insist he chose another sport.
"I competed for the first time in class 12th. In that race I came second and even though it was my first race, I felt upset that this other guy won. That's when I decided to do it seriously. It became a self-respect thing,"
Just when Amlan was looking for a mentor to help him progress to the next level, he was spotted by James Hillier, the head coach at Reliance Foundation Odisha Athletics High-Performance Centre at Bhubaneswar during a competition in July 2019.
As his athletics career has developed, Borgohain has forced himself to cut down on football. "It's a very big sacrifice. Sometimes when I feel nervous I'll do keepie uppies to relax but it's been 2 years since I played a game. It's tough but I know that's what is needed to succeed in athletics," he says.
Despite his late start Borgohain has shown he has plenty of potential as a runner. Last year he won a gold medal in the 200m at the Open Nationals and a silver in the 100m. Now that he's got the national record, he's looking to go even further.
"The main goal is to inspire others. I may not be the Olympic champion but I think someone else from India can be. Muhammad Anas set the 200m record at 20.63 seconds and I saw it and broke it. I think someone will want to break what I did. Now someone will see 20.52 and they will break it. And then eventually one day, we will have an Olympic medal," he says.
Just as he's set a new national record, Borgohain is already looking beyond that mark. When he gets back to his training base in Bhubaneswar, Borgohain says he's changing the cover of his phone, if only partly. "I'll change the number (from 20.50) but I won't change Goku. Whenever I feel I need inspiration that's someone I want to be like," he says.