The COVID-19 pandemic had brought the sporting world to a shuddering halt last year, forcing a 12-month postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Race walker Priyanka Goswami was one of several Indian athletes whose hopes were almost dashed, leaving her unsure as to whether she will be able to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
She had nearly qualified for the Games at the National Championships last year but fell agonizingly short of the qualifying standard by a mere 34s. Undeterred by the loss, Priyanka begun training harder to improve her timing for the Asian Championships. However, the meet was eventually canceled due to the pandemic.
"I was not upset with my timing at all. I recorded my personal best there. I was, in fact, happy to have clocked 1:31:00s. I had never thought that I would be able to race this good in my career. I knew I didn’t qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, but confidence grew in me. I realized my potential, I knew I could do better and faster," Priyanka told Sportskeeda.
"After that, I was hoping to qualify at the Asian Championships. But several qualifying events were canceled, followed by the postponement of the Olympics. My mind was disturbed, it was difficult to stay focused on the target. I forgot how it feels like to be in a competitive mode," she added.
But every cloud has a silver lining, a second chance to make up for a missed opportunity.
The delay, despite its disruption to her race walking schedule, granted her a second chance to get to the top of her game when she attempted to qualify again this year. Priyanka was determined to make the most of the second chance circumstances had given her.
The 24-year-old went on to turn heads when she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics by clocking 1:28:45s at the National Open Championships in February. She shattered the previous national record of 1:29:54s held by Bhawana Jat last year.
"All the hard work has paid off. I knew I would be able to do it by the time I finished 15km. I was happy with my speed during the first 15km. All I could think about was finishing the race in at least 1:28:00s. I have always trained according to that time, so it was all expected. My goal was to complete it in 1:27:00s, but I couldn’t touch that Tokyo Olympics qualifying mark," she said.
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'If not athletics, would've been married by now': Tokyo Olympics-bound Priyanka Goswami
One look at Priyanka's career and you would see she had already come a long way. The eldest of two children to Madanpal Goswami, a bus conductor in Uttar Pradesh's Meerut, Olympics wasn't something Priyanka had even heard of before becoming an athlete.
"If it was not for athletics, I would have probably been married with a child by now. (Laughs) All my schoolmates are happily married now, I would have met the same fate. They say they are very proud of me," she said.
For Priyanka, race walking meant hurtling towards a future she never saw coming. Born in a small village in Western UP's Muzaffarnagar district, Priyanka began her race walking journey without any formal training in the sport.
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She dabbed in gymnastics at school for nearly six months before eventually finding her true calling in athletics. She competed in multiple district level tournaments because she was attracted to the gifts that winners were given.
"I developed my interest in athletics during the time I stayed at a hostel in Lucknow. I used to participate in the fitness tests and always came first in the 800m hurdles. I wanted to compete in athletics, so I took a break of three years. Then I went back to the same hostel, met the athletics coach, and I started over," she recalled.
"During that time, I was aware that medalists in the district-level meets were gifted bags and I wanted one of them. I tried my luck in both 800m and 1500m events, but I couldn’t win. Race walking was the only event left there. I participated upon my coach’s advice, and finished third. I won both a medal and a bag in that competition. That’s how race walking began."
Tracing her journey from humble beginnings to Tokyo Olympics
Within a year of pursuing the sport, Priyanka had her first taste of sporting glory at the 2011 Youth Nationals, where she finished second. She went on to bag top honors in the race walking event at the 2014 Junior Nationals, setting a new record that remained unbroken until this year.
Her parents have always backed her in her endeavors despite knowing little about their daughter’s sport. Despite facing a financial crunch, they did all that they could to make her dreams come true. Now employed as a junior clerk in the Indian Railways, Priyanka is now able to help her family financially.
"Parents usually discourage girl children from playing sports. I was fortunate to not have been brought up that way. There were financial struggles in the beginning, but nearly every athlete has struggles. But everything fell in place after a point of time. My parents told me they were proud of me and that I did great. All they now want is me winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics," she reflected.
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Priyanka became the third Indian woman to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in the 20km race walking event after Bhawana Jat and Khushbir Kaur. She is leaving no stone unturned in her preparations for the Olympics and wants to improve her timing further and create history for the country.
"It's every athlete's dream to become an Olympian one day. It has always been like that for me. Everybody is after a medal. But it is only the timing that matters. If your timing is great, you can win gold and break records as well. There is no pressure on me in that way. The goal is to clock 1:27:00s. I will try to perform even better there. I want to create history at the Tokyo Olympics," she explained.
Her determination and confidence might make that dream a reality in Tokyo.
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