“In a group of 70, there are 25 national champions,” says a beaming Vijender Singh. And what’s more, one of his star pupils, Sanjeevani Jadhav clinched gold in the half-marathon section of the Mumbai Marathon on Sunday in some style. Finishing 45 seconds behind the Asian Athletics bronze medallist at second place was Monika Athare, who was the winner in 2017.

Such is the regularity at which Singh’s students place on the podium, that the Sports Authority of India coach recently hailed Nashik – his base since 1991 – as the Kenya of India. While those claims might have induced a wry smile on the faces of some, it might not be far off the mark either.

Coaching untrained athletes from Nashik’s surrounding villages at the Bhonsala Military School, Singh has mentored many a champion, and he factors a lot of it down to the high altitude and the tough-as-nails backgrounds of his proteges, “Many of my students come from tough living conditions so the genetic factors play a role. Surrounding Nashik, there are kids who live in dense forests, and some have had to walk more than 10 kilometers to fetch a bucket of water,” Singh says.

It is now etched in Indian sporting folklore that Kavita Raut, easily the most accomplished of Singh’s graduates, used to do carry buckets of water from her village’s nearest water resource several times a day. Raut went on to become India’s first Commonwealth Games medallist in athletics after Milkha Singh when she landed gold in New Delhi 2010.

Diet goes hand in hand with an athlete’s performance on track. The Nashik kids, Singh says, have it covered since a young age, “The climatic conditions [high altitude above sea level] and the food the tribals eat – lots of fruits – helps in their progress too,” he says. “The increase in red blood cells mass also increases by running at a higher altitude,” Singh added, when asked the secret behind Nashik’s rapid rise as a goldmine for long distance runners.

From the ground up

Vijender Singh with his student Tai Bamne | Image credit: Anglian Medal-Hunt Company

SAI and Bhonsala Military School joined hands and Singh has spearheading the recruitment and training process. Singh and his wards are allowed to use the canteen, gym and their training grounds. Some of the athletes are provided accommodation at the hostel too.

When asked how Singh makes his ends meet, the Meerut-born coach says: “I have been in Nashik for close to three decades. There are untrained kids with me and I work with them for one-two years. We are well taken care of by the government – not so much from the central one, but from the state.”

“We have a mud track [in the school premises]. The trainees are with us round the clock. There is emphasis on education too: Look at Sanjivini and Monika, they are graduates.”

Being the only person driving his team, is Singh able to devote equal amount of time to all his students? “The beginner groups don’t have much load. I split them into two different groups and only in the evening do I train with the seniors.

The future is bright

Over the past year, Sanjeevani has established herself as one of the country’s premier long distance runners following her medal finishes in the Asian Athletics Championships and World University Games. Raut, an Arjuna awardee and an Olympian, is on the verge of starting her own project.

There is more to come, Singh insists: “Anjana [Thamke], Durga [Deore], Tai Bamne are very talented. Many of the athletes have sponsors, Kavita Raut may open her own academy. There are Asian medallists and even a 14-year-old national champion.”

Singh is putting his money where his mouth is. And the results are there for everyone to see.