Ajay Kumar Saroj is an enigma; notoriously shy in front of the cameras at a press conference but a confident, free-speaking young man off it.
After his winning run in the 1500 metres at the ongoing Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar; the last 20 metres of which he spent in celebrating his win, a bigger challenge awaited. The 20-year old had never been placed in front of the media en masse before and it took ten minutes and his coach Jaswinder Bhatia’s convincing before he showed up.
Away from the cameras, Bahadur Prasad’s 1995 national record of 3:38:00 seconds will be broken, he says. “That is the mark to beat and I have a personal best of 3 minutes 43 seconds so far, so I’m not too far off,” says Saroj.
Bhatia, who has trained the likes of PT Usha, concurs, “See, this is all on the day. This year, the winning time in Rio was 3:50:00. He has already shown that he can run faster than that.” What Bhatia fails to mention is that this was the slowest winning time in an Olympic 1500 metre event since 1932.
His point is valid though. Long distance running is not just technique and speed, it is tactical too. Saroj emphasises that he has been working hard on this aspect, “My coach and Gulab (Chand) sir have been giving me advice on when to speed up, when to keep my pace. It is working for me.”
Gulab Chand, an Arjuna awardee known as “Bijlee” (Lightning) in his running days due to his speed has flown down from Lucknow just to support Saroj. His message is short, “I believe in the boy and his ability.”
Saroj and Bhatia also have plans for the 5,000 metres in the future. “After a point, long distance running is about strategy and not a major shift in technique between distances. I’ve been doing 14 minutes 33 seconds over 5,000 in training, so let’s hope for the best,” Saroj opens up about his future plans.
But it all could have been so different for Saroj if he had chosen to pursue his first love – Archery. Or another field which he might have pursued if he had chosen to continue with his studies – Engineering.
“Engineering padke kya karte? School mein naukri karna padhta aur kuch bees hazar rupaaye tankha milta. (What would I have accomplished if I had studied engineering? I would have to work in a school for a salary of 20,000 rupees),” says Saroj, glad that he dropped out after the 12th grade.
Born into a family of eight in the Soraon locality of Allahabad, the youngest of three brothers who also have three sisters, Saroj says he was never good at academics and thankfully, his parents recognised it. His father, a farmer and his mother, a homemaker, told him he wasn’t any good at it and asked him to pursue sports in 2011 when he was a 15-year old.
Although Saroj did finish school, he decided to follow in the footsteps of sister Shashi Kumari, a former national runner and brother Ajith, also an athlete and Saroj’s biggest supporter in the family, both financially and emotionally according to the youngster.
“I used to carry water for Shashi during her training and run with her a bit. Till I was 15, I thought I would end up studying engineering but I always knew I could never score very well,”says Saroj. “I would play all sports like a normal child, with no focus. I would do Kho-kho, Kabaddi, all these sports.”
He then visited his brother Ajith who was working with the Tata group in Jamshedpur and it was there that Saroj tried his hand at Archery. “I loved the sport. You didn’t have to go around running every day. It’s all about hand-eye coordination and focus. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hit any part of the board. I quit after two weeks,” laughs Saroj. “Even now, I follow archery very closely and I’ve even met Deepika Kumari once,” he adds.
He was sent to Bhatia in Lucknow by Ajith, and the veteran coach took the then 15-year old in, before sending him to junior level athletic meets. It was perhaps here that the coach and his protege took the wrong decision.
Saroj chose to represent Assam, as choosing UP would have meant going through the “hassle of trials” as the long-distance runner puts it. “I wanted to compete immediately and we took an incorrect call. I kept winning events and I submitted all my papers correctly but the prize money from the events would never reach me,” says Saroj reflecting on difficult beginnings in the sport.
It was then that P K Shrivastava, treasurer of the Athletics Federation of India and from the UP Athletics Association identified Saroj and brought him under the UP selection. Support came in bits from Shrivastava and Ajith, as Saroj shifted to Bengaluru in 2013 with his first breakthrough coming at the Youth Olympics 2014 in Nanjing where he finished fifth.
There was no looking back for Saroj, 17 then, as he would go on to set national records at the Under-18 and Under-20 level. “Once I started my training in earnest, sometimes in high altitude at Ooty, I just wanted to break all records,” says the determined runner.
Financial difficulties still exist for Saroj, who says his monthly expenses are above 35,000. With GoSports coming on board two months ago, some of the burden on the athlete has eased. “I still don’t have a bank account. My coach handles all the money that my parents, the association and my brother send me. Why would I need an account? It’s not like I save any money at the end of the month,” jokes Saroj.
Bhatia has convinced Saroj to take up the books again, even though Saroj is content with his job as a ticket checker at the Allahabad station. “I don’t get any money from the job as I don’t attend, but it’s my failsafe option. But coach is right, it may be difficult to get a job in the future without a degree. I’ve enrolled at Sitaram College for my Bachelor in Arts. I’m about to finish my first year. It’ll be difficult amidst all these events but I’ll try travelling for the exams,” says Saroj.
The 20-year old has had to give up on a lot of things along the way and by his own claims, hasn’t gone home for three years. “I’m hoping that I’ll see them before the Asian Games but it’s not certain,” Saroj says with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
Right now though, Saroj is upbeat. His first race at the IAAF World Championships in London will coincide with his idol’s last and final race before he retires. Ajay Kumar Saroj will finally get to meet Mo’ Farah and the 20-year old couldn’t be more excited.