When the Indian contingent touches down in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, Nitendra Rawat will be right there. As always the nation’s huge expectations will weigh down heavy on the motley group of Indian athletes, who train in some of the harshest conditions yet somehow always manage to win hearts.

Nitendra ‘Nitin’ Rawat is one of the few Indian athletes who has known for many months that Rio beckons. He had crossed the line to earn the berth in October 2015 in Mungyeong, South Korea. In the marathon event of the World Military Games – his official long-distance debut – he clocked a stunning 2:18:06, just 54 seconds ahead of the qualification mark, to book the Olympics berth. Speaking exclusively to mobiefit, Nitin says he’s now eyeing a much lower time in Rio.

Nitin was at the national camp in Ooty, when he took time off from his altitude training to speak to mobiefit. His eyes are set dreams of “an Olympic medal for my country and run a world class race.”

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Rawat’s journey began like many Indian Olympians: in the Indian army. His first posting was in Kashmir near POK and Nitin looked to running as a way to get a less inconvenient posting thanks to their better training facilities. “I only started running after my enrollment in the Indian Army. In my childhood we used to play cricket, but that was it. My career began in 2010 when I took running seriously. And in 2013, I ran 5000m in 13:55 min. Four other runners also ran below 14 min. And this was the first time this had happened in India only. More importantly for me, it was my first gold medal.”

Rawat along with Kavita Raut, who will also represent India at the Olympics (Image:SportsKeeda)
Rawat along with Kavita Raut, who will also represent India at the Olympics (Image:SportsKeeda)

But Rawat reveals he’s still grounded. “When I ran only for fitness and enjoyment it was ok, but when I took it seriously it become like a burden. You start comparing yourself to others and think others are doing well but not you. It demoralizes you. You feel like giving up. But that’s also when you need most motivation. For me this comes through everywhere: from senior players, my coach (Surinder Singh Bhandari), good books etc. Running has taught me that limitation is only a word, nothing else.”

Bhandari is perhaps one of the best young running coaches in India. Besides Nitin, he is also the coach for Kheta Ram and Gopi T, both of whom have also qualified for the Rio game. This will be the first time that three Indian men will be turning out for the main marathon event, widely considered the pinnacle of Olympics events. “He was one of the best long distance runners in India and the national record holder in 10,000m,” says Rawat. “I have learnt so much from how he came out of his struggle. And we have the same story about why we started running i.e. the Indian Army.”

This year, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) is being optimistic, and thereby adding to the pressure on Indian athletes. The SAI and the sports ministry are looking at ‘around 10 to 14 medals’ for India at the Rio Olympics, almost double what Indian managed in London four years ago.

That’s ambitious even by Indian standards, and Rawat knows all too well the lack of facilities and income for Indian athletes is a major stumbling block. Earlier this year, he had to reach out to sponsors to ask for help in acquiring a pair of shoes for the Olympics. The story made huge news and immediately help came pouring in, including a sponsorship with Adidas.

Nitendra Rawat, the best Indian runner at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, finished in 10th place
Nitendra Rawat, the best Indian runner at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, finished in 10th place (Image: Indian Express)

Rawat showed why all the help mattered by finishing the top Indian runner at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, breaking the India course record of 2:16:59, and finishing 10th overall.

But with the increased expectations from the country’s central sports institutes, the pressure on athletes will be immense. Rawat seems disaffected by that, as he believes one of his life’s biggest achievements has already taken place. “I think every sports person has one dream: to represent his or her country in the Olympics. And I made my dream come true so I feel proud already.”

But when probed where the medals would come from, Rawat says “Mostly from shooting and wrestling but few from athletics too.”

As he prepares for Rio in Ooty, Nitin says besides Bhandari, it’s father’s words that have kept him going, and inspired a hardworking ethos. “Beta, always do hard work,” he told me. Nitin doesn’t have to search for inspiration in order to work hard these days. Training in Ooty is intense now that the Olympics is just over four months away. Many of India’s elite athletes will be around here, encouraging and learning from each other. “Approximately 7 to 8 hours, depending on the workout,” is how Nitin describes a typical day. “I train twice a day, and that’s how it is for the whole week, except Sunday.”

His average weekly mileage is about 250km with a mix of all kinds of interval training. “Last year I was practicing without a group for the marathon and now that I have qualified for Olympics, some athletes have shifted to marathon training to make it easier.”

Coming back to the Olympics, Nitin says his target is to run under the 2:09:59 mark. “Physically we are working hard, but we are behind in sports science. So my view is that we need to improve on that front to win more. But we are on the way to winning more medals.

As he mentally prepares for the day he will walk into the Olympic Stadium in Rio, Nitin says there’s just one thing he wants to see more than anything else: “Huge support for the Indian team.”

“It is their (public’s) right (to expect) but they have to know that despite lack of facilities, we are doing well. So please wish for us too.”

Main image: Procam

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