Edward Sequeira was not a runner. At least, in his own mind, he wasn’t. He had not run in school. He had not run in college. He had not run a race until he got his first job.
Yet, Edward Sequeira went on to win 32 international athletic medals. He set national records that lasted decades. He established Asian records, won the Arjuna award and represented India at the 1972 Olympics. All this for a man who didn’t know he could run.
So how did this “non-runner” from the Parel area in Mumbai become a record-breaking athlete who had no equal in Asia?
In 1959, when he was 18, Sequeira joined Railways as a mechanical apprentice. He was the youngest of the four siblings and needed to support the family after ill health forced his father to retire early.
As a child, Sequeira had no interest in sports. But just few days into his new job, the Railways chief instructor made it compulsory for all employees to participate in the athletics meet on Republic Day. It was either that or lose a month’s salary.
“I ran the 100m race in long pants,” Sequiera said with a laugh as he sat down for an interview with Scroll.in in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood where he now lives.
He added: “I’ll never forget that day. Everybody was frightened and took it up. Thanks to the instructor, he made everyone run but nobody knew I had the talent. Slowly, I came up after that.”
Discovering the talent
Olympian Baldev Singh, who was a decathlete, saw that race and was impressed by the young man’s talent. He took Sequeira under his wing for over a year, got him to focus on the 800m as his main event and helped him become Maharashtra state champion in 1962. The same year, Sequeira finished third in the national games. In the following year, he set a new Railways and national record at the All-India Railway meet.
A year later, he broke into the Indian athletics team where coach JS Saini told him to train in 1500m. But it was only after Sequeira trained under the tutelage of Otto Peltzer that he became a world-class runner.
Peltzer, who represented Germany in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics and was a world record holder himself, coached the Indian team and transformed Sequeira’s technique. Sequeira’s stiff legs and restricted hand movement meant he wasn’t getting the best out of his stride. But Peltzer changed it by incorporating interval training in his schedule. Interval training involves a series of high intensity workouts interspersed with rest or relief periods.
“He wanted more power in my stride,” Sequeira recalled. “How to move your legs a little forward while running with better hand movement and relaxation of the shoulders. I used to run very hard, so my movement was slow. The moment you relax your shoulders, you will go far. Pelzer gave me a schedule of how to train.”
The German served as a valuable mentor, giving him the belief that he could set his sights on bigger goals. The Goan native recalls how few words from Peltzer spurred him on before he set a new Asian and national record in 1966.
“Peltzer inspired me to a great extent,” he said. “How you motivate athletes, that is very important. You need to sit with them and show them how to come up. Bring up that determination in them. Some athletes already have it in the mind that I will finish this place but there, you’re losing the battle in the mind.”
For Sequeira, the target was always the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He came within 0.1 seconds of the 1964 Olympic qualification mark of 3:46.5 seconds and had to wait till the 1972 Munich Games to finally make his Olympic debut.
But between the disappointment of missing out on two Olympics, Sequeira set a few records that were not broken for decades. The Asian mark stood for five years while his national record lasted for nearly 25 years before being broken by Bahadur Prasad.
“I met Prasad, he touched my feet and apologised for breaking my record,” said Sequiera, who dominated the 800m and 1500m events in India for almost a decade. “In Railways, he also broke my record which stood for 27 years. But my state record in 1500m [3.43] still stands and it has been nearly 60 years. It’s a tough record and I don’t think anyone will break it.”
When India hosted Russia for a four test event during 1965, Peltzer shifted him to 5000m as the Russians were clinching more medals in that event. In that same event, he broke the national record in 5000m (14 minutes, 28 seconds) which endured for 17 years.
The fear of running the longer distance always played on his mind although Peltzer told him to persist with it. He stuck with 1500m but one disappointment followed after another.
Sequeira missed out on qualifying for the 1968 Mexico Olympics and with age catching up, the 28-year-old decided it was best for him to run 5000m. That got him instant success.
In 1969, he finished first in the 5000m international meet held in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The following year, bagged silver in the same event during the 1970 Asian Games where every Indian athlete in the 22-member contingent returned with a medal.
Sticking to the 5000m event also helped him fulfill his Olympic dream as he qualified for the 1972 Munich Games. Sequeira wonders why he didn’t compete regularly in the 5000m event – one decision that still haunts him.
“As age goes up, the speed goes down,” said Sequeira. “So I had to make the shift. Then I broke the national record . But I wasn’t a regular in the 5000m even though Peltzer told me to keep running in that. I had this in my mind, it is 12-and-a-half rounds. How will I do it? I regret that.”
Sequeira received the Arjuna Award (1971), Shiv Chatrapati Award (1970) and the Asian Award (1996). But he faced his share of struggles too. The pressure of shuffling between work at the Railways and training made it difficult for him to maintain the constant routine of a professional athlete.
His decision to join Tata Steel in 1964 was as a “life-changing” moment that fully enabled him to concentrate on his athletics career, Sequeira said. He remembers handing his first salary of Rs 80 towards his mother to pay off all the loans she had taken from her cousins.
“I came from a very poor background,” he said.
“My family grew up using a common toilet among 10 other families,” he added. “I would go for training in the morning at 4.30 am, carry buckets of water from the ground floor and climb up to three floors. Then I would head to work for Railways at 8 am.”
The job at Tata’s provided Sequeira a handsome salary and better training facilities. “At Railways, I had no time to train except late in the evening,” he revealed.
Among his most vivid memories, Sequiera said, was the horror that unfolded at the 1972 Olympic Games. Not only because it was his first games but also due to the close shave he had with death after the Munich Massacre where a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes. Sequeira was in the opposite building, watching the terror unfold.
Sequeira puffed his cheeks as he recalled the incident. “Baap re, that was too much,” he said.
“I saw them with red tracksuits and black bags,” he mentioned. “It happened right opposite our building since they had allotted us rooms in alphabetical order. I woke up [runner] Sriram Singh, who was on the ground floor, assuming that it was Pakistan terrorists. We looked at everybody jumping, shouting and locked everything up. We saw the terrorists taking them in the evening.”
Sequeira’s event was postponed a day later to mourn the slain Israel athletes and he couldn’t concentrate fully on his race, finishing 11th in the 5000m heats. He said that he didn’t feel safe until he returned home.
“The fright was there,” he said. “I couldn’t concentrate as we all others were tensed.”
Sequeira recalled another incident that is hard to forget, one that still makes him angry. It was the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok.
He was leading the 1500m race but he got hit on the ribs by another competitor and fell down. The impact was so severe that Sequeira had to be rushed to the hospital. It took him about three weeks to recover. It wasn’t clear who had shoved him.
Japan’s Keisuke Sawaki, winner of the race, visited the hospital and offered his medal to Sequiera, who was adjudged the Unlucky Athlete of the Games award.
“I was easily winning that race,” Sequeira said. “No one could catch me. We were about 12 guys who were running in the final and I had taken the lead in 30-40 metres and somebody hit me on my side. I got hit during the curve and lost gold. I couldn’t protest because there were no pictures. It was nice of Sawaki to come and see me in the hospital but I was thinking that nothing should happen to my knee. I don’t know who did it and why.”
Sequeira has lost count of the coats he has collected from international meets. Looking back on his journey, there is no sense of regret. Most of the races he won are vivid in his mind.
“I travelled all over the world and have represented India,” he said. “I feel whatever I have achieved is enough. I prayed a lot for this. I collected a lot of coats – red for the international meets, blue for the Asian games, Commonwealth and Olympic games. Maroon for the international meets. I will never forget those days. I used to fight for medals. I had it just in my mind to win them.”