Abrar Choudhary's gold medal in the U-20 men's event of the 400m Open Nationals in India ended up posing a bit of a quandary to organisers. While they were unable to confirm if he was the first ever, it's likely that Choudhary who clocked a personal best time of 48.56 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday, is the first athlete from Jammu and Kashmir to win a national title in a very long time. For the most part, track and field is a beleaguered sport in this part of the country. It's rare for an athlete to even compete at a national tournament and rarer still for them to advance from the heats. Just for that, Choudhary's journey from Sainik Colony, Chowadi, a village next to Jammu city, to the top of the podium at the JLN Stadium is a remarkable one.
It's one that been fueled almost entirely through his own passion - junoon - he says. It also includes an unlikely pit stop in the industrial town of Rohtak in Haryana. It began less than a couple of years ago . "My village isn't very famous. It's only well known because its on the way from Jammu to the Vaishno Devi temple. But there's no scope for sports here. There's really no scope for sports in all of J&K. There are no facilities there," says Choudhary.
Despite this, he says he was always determined to be a sportsperson. "My father Mohammad Hanif is a farmer but he was always very supportive of my choices. I have a brother who is a bodybuilder, who has won the state title twice, so it wasn't a shock to my father that I also wanted to participate in sports. In fact, he also wanted at least one of his sons to compete for India at the international level," he says. He started out as a kickboxer, winning the state title. The only running he did was the long-distance kind - running along the state highways to build endurance.
It was only in 2019 that he had his first brush with formal athletics. "The PT teacher at my school asked if I wanted to take part in a district tournament. I had no real idea of what it was about," he recalls. That's when Choudhary had to pick an event to take part in. "I'd seen the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag when I was younger. I really looked up to Milkha Singh. So I thought even I should take part in the 400m," he says.
Choudhary won that district competition and then won the state title in what were his very first races over the distance. He doesn't credit this solely to natural ability. "That's just how poor the standard of the state was. Imagine, I just showed up at a state tournament without even training seriously and I won it," he says.
The win qualified him for the school nationals in New Delhi, where Choudhary quickly learned that basic talent only got him so far. Running for the first time on a synthetic track in a cheap pair of spikes that he had bought just a few days before, he clocked a time of 51.68, impressive for a beginner but only enough to take him to the semifinals. "Before the competition, I was just really happy because I was getting a free trip to Delhi. But after losing in my first national competition and seeing the other kids get medals, I was determined even I had to win a medal. But I saw how well prepared the other kids were and I knew I couldn't achieve that level in Jammu," he says.
On observing that the Haryana team was one of the strongest athletics teams at the competition, Choudhary says he decided to ask one of their coaches if he could train with him. That coach, Rohtash Siwach, agreed and within a few months, Choudhary was making plans to travel to his academy in Rohtak.
It was not an easy decision to make. "My mother wasn't happy that I was travelling so far from my home. And I had to write my class 12th exams first. Then there was the COVID-19 pandemic. But I was constantly thinking of going to Rohtak," he says.
It was only in December last year that he was able to convince his family to let him travel to Haryana.
The adjustment wasn't easy. "It's difficult being a new kid in a strange place. Everything is strange. Chowadi is a very clean area. Rohtak has a lot of pollution. The food was different of course and I was staying away from my family. But I knew that if I wanted to be anything as an athlete, I had to adjust," says Choudhary, who's now assimilated the language to the extent of lipsynching Haryanvi songs on his social media.
According to Siwach, the then 19-year-old had to be coached like a beginner. "He had never had any formal training. He had no idea how to pace himself over the 400m. The thing was he is extremely explosive and he also had a lot of endurance because of the kind of training he had been doing in Jammu. But he didn't have the sprint endurance that he needed over the 400m."
Another challenge was the fact that Choudhary lacked experience of running the curve of the track, something that was made worse by the fact that he was from J&K. "At the start, whenever I was allotted a lane to run on, people would think 'oh he's from Jammu. He's probably not very good. Just put him in lane 8'. Running on the outer track is really hard. It's very technical and I had to adapt very fast to that," he says.
There was also the fact that Choudhary was very light for his size - standing 6 foot 1, he was only around 56kg when he first arrived in Rohtak. "I only used to eat home food - only dal and roti. It was only after I came to Rohtash sir that I started looking at my diet. Now I'm around 62kg. For perspective, current world record holder Wayde van Niekerk is as tall as Choudhary but weights 70kg. I'm still not as strong as I should be," he says.
Even as they worked on his shortcomings, Choudhary would continue to improve. Just three months after he started specialized training, he would shave a couple of seconds off his timing at the 2019 School Games as he won a gold medal at the Junior North Zone Athletics Championships with a time of 49.80 seconds. At the U-23 nationals in Delhi last month, he'd make the semifinals with an improved time of 48.60. Choudhary, of course, has a long way to go. The Indian record is 45.21, over three seconds off his personal best. But Choudhary also believes he is currently at the start of his journey.
Following his race on Tuesday, an intrigued national 400m women's coach Galina Bukharina asked the youngster his timings over the shorter distances. Choudhary has a personal best of 10.60 in the 100m but just about 22.67 seconds over the 200m. Bukharina would advise the youngster and his coach to adjust his training in order to build his endurance over the quarter mile. Siwach too believes his student can eventually clock times inside 46 seconds - enough to earn him a place in the national setup.
What is in Choudhary's favour is that there are still plenty of variables he could improve on. Better kit would be one. As the son of a farmer, money has always been tight. Choudhary is currently using the same set of spikes he used shortly after arriving in Rohtak. "Rohtash sir got them from a sponsor. Normally these spikes last for about 4 months but I have had no choice but to keep using them. They are a bit torn but I use tape to fix that," he says. Even his running tights are frayed along the thighs.
Choudhary isn't making any excuses though. "When I came from Jammu to Haryana to try and improve my training, I knew it would be hard. But I had a junoon ki kuch karna hai life me. (That I had to do something in life). I'm confident I can get faster. Before I had no facilities. Right now, I have a good coach and a plan. The only problem for me now is there's no support coming from J&K. I'm really hoping by next year I can make it to the national camp. I know I can compete for India in international competition. But If I get a sponsor or make it to the national camp, I'll be able to concentrate completely on my running," he says.