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From rags to Rio: Why Kerala's Mohammad Anas never gave up

Two years ago, he didn't even have proper shoes to run. Losing his father in class 10, Anas quit athletics to support his family.

Anas during the Federation Cup where he broke the 46 second barrier for the first time

What a remarkable turnaround it’s been for India’s Rio Olympic athletics contingent. From struggling to qualify for track events to making the relay cut by setting the world’s second fastest timing. Triple jumper Renjith Maheshwary also smashed the national record to register the third best jump in the world for 2016. All these prolific performances took place within 24 hours of each other, constituting the largest ever Indian athletics contingent in Olympic history.

If one was to put India’s Men’s relay qualification into context, the statistics would indicate them finishing ahead of traditional powerhouses such as Jamaica and Great Britain, based on their 3:00.71 second explosion. However, the inherent lack of facilities and basic infrastructure in rural and quasi-urban areas, make the team’s road to Rio even more remarkable.

Kerala’s Mohammad Anas has been a pivotal figure in the country’s 400m event surge. The 21-year old registered the fastest relay timing among the four runners, and has also successfully booked a slot in the individual event. However, exactly a year prior to his qualification, things were starkly different.

For his family 

Born in a small village called Nilamel, Anas began his athletics journey four years ago. Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “Before I was picked up by the Navy at last year’s National Games, things were very difficult for me. Athletics wasn’t proving to be very fruitful as I wasn’t graduating beyond the state level. When I started off in my village in 2012, I was easily the fastest guy in school. But, I couldn’t afford proper shoes, in fact even when I ran the National Games last year, my shoes were on the verge of tearing. However, I’m glad I stuck to it, it’s definitely paying off.”

The reason for Anas’ late introduction to competitive athletics was the death of his father in class 10. He added,”The only source of income my family had was the remittances sent by my father from Saudi Arabia. Once he passed away, we (brothers) had to completely focus on getting money for the family. So apart from school, we did whatever odd jobs we could in the village, when we managed to become a bit stable in class 12, I started again. It was my father’s dream to see me become an athlete, and now I’m not just running for myself, I’m running for him as well.”

Anas (far right) with the record breaking Indian Men’s Relay team 

Having broken all school records, he began running in Inter-college events while representing Sree Krishna college in Guruvayur. He went onto win the Calicut city Championship, highlighting his quick rise within Kerala’s athletics hierarchy. He said, “Being very honest, when I started off there was no synthetic track or any knowledge of how competitive running functioned. We used to think then to run our lungs out and finish first. The core value of running is still the same, we only find newer methods to get faster. So back in 2013, when I was running district and city level my goal was only to win. That is the only way I can reach the top.”

With no earning member in the family, both Anas and Anees (younger brother) pitched in doing odd jobs to support the family. With the worry of putting a roof over his head, 2013 proved to be a breakthrough year for the short distance runner. His inclusion in the Kerala Elite Sports Scheme not only confirmed his progress, but also removed an existent financial burden. Training under district Coach Jayakumar also helped him reach his true potential.

For his obsession 

He added, “Although its been only three years that I've been running seriously, I think my father's core values has helped me maintain discipline. When most of my college friends used to go drinking or enjoying I knew that firstly I couldn't afford it and second that it would harm my long term goal. My coach also helped me remained focused, he told me from day one that I would make it to Rio. That time I didn't take him seriously, and used make fun of him for pulling my leg. But, now that I have made it I realise how important that discipline was. When my father was alive, he always told me that, if you don't make something your obsession, you will never feel fulfilled in life. That has been something I've believed in my life and I hope one day I can win gold for India and make my father proud.”

Prolific performances at the Inter district Championships, including a silver medal at the 400 m individual event saw him successfully secure a spot in the Kerala National Games relay team. Anas' selection in the state was widely revered in his village. He added, “When I qualified for Rio and returned, my entire village was there to greet me. They told me that we also want our son to be like you, parents came and asked me how they could get their child into athletics. I told them not to force their kids as the child should be given adequate time to find his or her passion. I might be very interested in athletics, that doesn't mean others would be also. However, I do want my qualificaiton to reflect one particular facet. Mostly people from the smaller villages feel that they can't fulfill a dream. I hope people do realise that no dream is too small to pursue. If you believe in it, give it your best shot.”

The 2015 National Games was headlined by Kerala swimmer Sajan Prakash, who was adjudged the best sporsperson of the event. Anas' performances caught the eye of the Indian Navy, who immediately signed him up. For the first time in his career, he would be paid a salary to do something he loved the most. He added, “It was a very emotional moment for me and my family, because they knew how hard all of us worked to get me there. Now that I could support my family, through a salary meant that I could solely concentrate on my running and helping my brother as well.”

Relay team has strong chance to medal at Rio: Anas 

In the Navy, Anas was being coached by former international athlete T G Ajesh. This proved to be the turning point for him. Results were immediate with a gold medal at the Inter-State Services Championship and a silver in his very first Senior Nationals. He also broke the 46 second barrier in 2015 at the Indian Grand Prix and Federation Cup. He said, “I am very lucky that I had such a quick growth trajectory and I completely attribute that to my Coach. He kept telling me that I could get faster, and everytime he said that I used to run at least a few tenths faster. I broke the 46 second barrier a few times in training, but doing it at the Indian GP, that to my first one was a special feeling.”

Anas clocked 45.40 seconds, the exact qualification timing to book a Rio slot. 

Despite increasingly improving his timings, Olympic qualification wasn't something Anas thought of. Focusing mainly on the relay event, he believes the individual cut was just a by-product. He added, “We were solely focusing on relay, in fact we never the three minute timing In training as well, we shaved off close to a second of our timing, much to our surprise. When I qualified at the Poland Championship, I was quite surprised, but I was breaking the qualification timing a lot during training. So, it was a great feeling for me , but our main aim is still to medal in relay at Rio 2016.”

There were doubts raised by people on social media about the legitimacy of the relay timing. However, the doping test confirmed that the team was completely clean.

Only the third Indian to qualify in the 400m event after Milkha Singh and K M Banu, Mohammad Anas is on the cusp of athletic glory. Coming from a humble background has further strengthened his resolve to become the world's best. From not being able to afford shoes to the grandest stage of them all, don't be surprised if the village boy from Nilamel defies the odds yet again in Rio.

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