Road to Tokyo 2020: Priyanka Goswami’s entry into race walking was accidental, but her success is not

The 24-year-old from Meerut lowered the national record in women’s 20km race walking to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics
By Deepti Patwardhan

Race walking is about hitting pace in perfectly measured strides. For Priyanka Goswami, though, it has meant hurtling towards a future she never saw coming.

The 24-year-old, one of the proven talents on the national circuit, lowered the national record in women’s 20km race walking to clinch a berth for the Tokyo Olympics.

Priyanka clocked 1:28:45, shaving off more than a minute of the national record of 1:29:54 held by Bhawna Jat, to win the women’s event at the 8th National and International Race Walking Championships 2021 held in Ranchi, Jharkhand on Saturday.

A few hours after lowering the national mark, the Meerut girl recalled her eventful start to race walking.

Having dabbled in gymnastics when she was in standard six, and quitting it in six months, Priyanka wanted to try her luck at athletics. She participated in a district level championship mainly because she was intrigued by the prize.

“All the medalists used to get bags.It seems like a small thing now but at that time it was quite a prize. I participated in a lot of running events there, but didn’t win a single bag. The last event of the day was race walking and I saw only three girls were competing in it. My coach told me to go join them. I walked, since I was a gymnast and flexible, I did quite well at it.” - Priyanka Goswami

Priyanka won the bronze medal, and one of the coveted bags. She already had an athletic foundation, but it still took some time to hone the skills required for an intensely technical event like race walking.

“My coach Gaurav Tyagi helped me build a base,” she said. “I have taken a beating on my knees from him! You are not supposed to bend your knees in race walking. Apart from that the most critical aspect is keeping at least one foot in touch with the ground at any given time.”

Another happy accident occurred at the 2015 National Games in Kerala. Priyanka had traveled for the Games mainly for the junior competitions. But with no one to represent her state, Uttar Pradesh, at the event, she was promoted to the women’s race walking. Once again, she finished with a bronze medal.

Priyanka is, refreshingly, open and relaxed with her approach. When asked about keeping that focus and form for more than an hour and over a distance of 20km, she sighed.

“I came to know quite late that it’s a 20km race! If I knew I probably would not have entered it,” the 24-year-old said. “In the juniors we would mainly race walk over three or five kilometers. It wasn’t till I participated in the nationals that I knew this is supposed to last 20km.”

She remembers being neither nervous not tired when she raced her first 20km. Athletes’ pride took over. Having entered the race, all she was focused on was finishing it. “It’s not until I completed my first 20km race that I even believed I could do it,” she recalled.

Not only did she finish it, she finished it with a time that was good enough for her to qualify for one of the elite events next season: the 2016 IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome.

In her first international competition, Priyanka remembers feeling like an outsider. “Some of the best in the world were there,” she said. “They were all so serious; plus there was a language barrier so I didn’t talk with any of them. I was basically just following the crowd: right from knowing where to go and get into your kit.”

Despite feeling intimidated by her rivals, whose body fat percentage left her in awe, before the race, she finished with a personal best of 1:40:04. A year later, she went on to bag two gold medals at national championships.

“I enjoy athletics, always did,” she said. “I used to be scared of gymnastics, especially the beam. There is nothing to be afraid about in race walking, work hard and walk!”

For the past 18 months, she has been focused on just that. Working hard and walking. A member of the national athletics camp at the SAI complex in Bangalore, she covers a weekly mileage of 250 kms in the training phase.

Gurmeet Singh, who is a double Olympian himself, is my coach at the national camp,” she informed. “Apart from that I have support from the GoSports Foundation, who have provided me with a dietician and psychologist.”

Last year, almost to the day, at the National and International race walking championship in Ranchi, Jharkhand, she had missed the Olympic cut by 36 seconds. But rather than being disappointed or letting the break due to the pandemic bother her, Priyanka worked towards wiping off that deficit.

On Saturday, she flew past the Olympic qualifying mark of 1:31.00. And with no more competitions between now and the Tokyo Olympics, Priyanka said she will be training hard to lower her personal best further. She is targeting a time of around 1:27 for the Tokyo Games.

Priyanka becomes only the third Indian woman to clinch an Olympic berth at the 20km race walking, an event that was only introduced at the 2000 Sydney Games. While race walker Khushbir Kaur represented India at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Bhawna Jat secured a place for the Tokyo Games in 2020.

“It’s every athlete’s dream to be an Olympian,” she said. “When I go and compete at the Olympics, my first Olympics, I want to be focused on my time. Not on my competition. We are all equal at the start line.”