She has walked her way to glory – and helped her family leave its tough times behind. And on National Sports Day, August 29, she will become the first woman race walker to get the Arjuna Award. Old-timers recall 1982 Asian Games gold medallist Chand Ram as the country’s race-walking pioneer and it won’t be long before Khushbir Kaur is spoke of in similar vein.
When she walks up to receive her Award and citation from President Mr Ram Nath Kovind, she will not be the only one whose heart will beat with pride. Her mother Jasbir Kaur, who encouraged Khushbir to take to race walking when she was very young, and her three siblings will lead the cheering.
Hailing from a small village on the outskirts of Amritsar, Khushbir claimed podium finishes in Asia’s prestigious competitions, landed a plum post with Punjab Police and can focus worry-free on her dream of doing well at the higher level. She is a veteran of three IAAF World Championships but she wants to mount a game challenge at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
Now 24, Khusbhir Kaur has spent a good part of 10 years walking competitively. As a 14-year-old, she drew attention when she won the 3km event at the Punjab State Athletics Championship. Coach Baldev Singh, Asian Athletics Championship bronze medallist in 1989, shaped her destiny with sound advice that helped her in her journey as India’s best bet.
Within a few months of teaming up with National Walks coach Alexander Artsybashev, she had won the 10km bronze medal in the Asian Junior Championship in Colombo in 2012. Then, in 2014, she bagged the bronze medal in the Asian Race Walking Championship bronze medal in Japan, rewriting the National record in the process with a time of 1:33:37.
Later that year at Incheon in Korea, she became the first Indian woman race walker to win the Asian Games silver medal but that came as little surprise to those who had tracked her since she surfaced at the national level. For, she had amazingly knocked off six minutes from her personal best in the span of two years.
She is discovering that the burden of expectations can be quite a challenge but is learning to deal with that with a calm demeanour, since she knows that she cannot be lowering her personal best each time she is competing. What she has learnt to do is to prepare well so that she can give her best on race day. Someday, she may yet improve on her 1:31:40 clocked in Taicang in 2014.
Khushbir Kaur missed her brush with the 2012 Olympic Games in London but kept her date with the Rio Games four years later, meeting the qualifying standard in April 2015 itself with a creditable showing in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge at Rio Maior in Portugal. She has dealt with pain when competing in courses that have some undulation like in Kochi and Jaipur.
She had to pass a fitness test before she left for Rio but it was clear that she was in pain during the competition. Despite that she did not pull out, completing the 20km determinedly and clocking 1:40:33 – a far cry from the 1:33:58 she has timed in a more favourable course in Rio Maior the previous year.
But her pain seemed nothing when compared to the pain of her father passing in 2000; or to the times she walked barefoot in her village, her bicycle-riding sister keeping company; or to the time the media highlighted her family’s plight of living in a shed, having razed down their three-room abode in anticipation of it being rebuilt.
The Arjuna Award can inspire Khushbir Kaur and others to believe that, with all its challenges, race walking can bring joy and recognition. It can be the shot in the arm that the sport of walking needs for it to gain wider recognition. And if, in time, more women take to it, the youngster from Rasulpur Kalan, 20km east of Amritsar, can take credit for being a catalyst, if not a pioneer.