Sanatan Pani

Minati Mohapatra became the first sportsperson from Odisha and the first woman cyclist of the country to bag Arjuna Award in 1980. An eight-time National champion, she had won five gold medals at the 1979 Indo-Sri Lanka Cycling Series in Colombo and a bronze at the 1970 National Games in Cuttack.

It’s heartening to write that Odisha’s long quest for a worthy successor to the legendary Minati Mohapatra has at last ended with the emergence of Swasti Singh. Riding on a wave of success, the 20-year-old girl from Rourkela is fast becoming the new cycling heart-throb of the State.

Swasti set both road and track on fire, pedalling her way to two gold and two silver medals in National championships, all within a month. She captured gold in elite women’s 60km mass start at the 25th Senior National Road Cycling Championship in Navi Mumbai and followed it with another gold in 20km point race and a silver each in 10km scratch race and 3000m individual pursuit at the 72nd Senior National Track Cycling Championship in Hyderabad. On top of it, she created new national record in 3000m individual pursuit with a time of 4 minutes 05.547 seconds.

[caption id="attachment_531300" align="aligncenter" width="851"]cycling in Odisha Swasti at the Senior National Track Championship in Hyderabad[/caption]

Swasti won her first national medal - a bronze - at the 2018 Junior Track Championship in New Delhi and the very same year came her first international medal, at the Asian Junior Track Championship where she won a gold. She has gone from strength to strength since then.

Swasti's kitty is now embellished with 15 national (6 gold, 4 silver, 5 bronze) and 3 international (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) medals. No wonder she has become the No 1 woman cyclist of India in terms of endurance.

Swasti’s love affair with cycling started in 2015 when she was in 7th standard at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Rourkela. “From childhood days, I was passionate about sports and loved to participate in whatever games played in our school or locality. I tried athletics, kho-kho, kabaddi, badminton and table tennis before a school circular set up my journey in cycling,’’ recalls Swasti after ending her glorious campaign in Hyderabad.

“The circular was regarding a month-long cycling selection trial at Cuttack. I joined the trial and went on to win 4 gold medals in the State Cycling Championship, held at DRIEMS, Tangi (Cuttack) in 2015,’’ added the cyclist, who has been honing her skill at the SAI National Cycling Academy in New Delhi since 2017.

Speaking about her journey thus far, Swasti said it has been tough, but worth undertaking. “My parents and my elder brother Aditya, who is also a national-level cyclist, encouraged me and provided the initial support. But the most important contribution came from my first coach Sushil (Das) sir. He gave me a De Rosa, my first sports bicycle that cost him Rs 50,000. Under his tutelage I learned a lot. Besides giving me a strong foundation, he helped me improve my endurance and will power. Without Sushil sir’s guidance I could not have come this far," disclosed Swasti, who trained under Das in Rourkela for two years before shifting to Delhi.

But the humble coach was not willing to take all credit himself. “Most of the credit should go to Rourkela Steel Plant, which took care of Swasti’s major needs during her formative years. RSP built a cycling track in Biju Patnaik Hockey Stadium where most of the competitive cyclists trained. Swasti got her first high-end bicycle worth Rs 2.5 lakh, thanks to the initiative taken by former Odisha cricketer Pannalal Bose, who was then the Senior Manager Sports, RSP. In order to devote more time for Swasti, I was shifted to Sports Department," revealed Das, also an RSP employee.

Himself a former international cyclist, Das, however, pointed it to Swasti’s intrinsic talent, dedication and hard work as the major secrets of her success. "Rain or storm, she would never miss a training session. If any of my pupils misses a training session without justifiable reason, I punish the concerned pupil by making him/her stand as a mute spectator in the next session. But Swasti never gave me any scope to punish her," reminisced Das.

"Swasti is a dedicated cyclist with inherent talent. If fit, she never misses training sessions. Endurance is her forte and skills come to her naturally. She is a quiet girl and very focused on her goals. She has all the qualities to rise to great height. What she needs is guidance and support," stated coach Das.

Sports Authority of India (SAI) too played a commendable role in transforming Swasti from a promising talent into an international medalist. Because of SAI, the Odisha cyclist now has two Japan-made bicycles (a Dolan worth Rs 3.2 lakh for track and another Dolan worth Rs 1.5 lakh for road) at her disposal.

Another good quality about Swasti is that success has not made her complacent and she aims to represent the country at the greatest sporting platform on the earth. “Making international debut in India jersey continues to be the most memorable moment of my career. But my ultimate goal is to compete at the Olympic Games," said the unassuming cyclist, now a Standard-XII student of the National Institute of Open Schooling.

Swasti, of course, knows it very well that a gap, as vast as the ocean, lies in between dreaming for Olympics and turning it into reality. But she is determined to swim. “I know it is not an easy task. I have to prove my mettle in majors such as Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships before hoping for an Olympics ticket. But I will give my best to reach there in future," maintained Swasti, who is also good at academics, securing above 97 per cent marks in school exams.

VN Singh, the chief coach of Indian Cycling Team (Endurance) has no doubt that Swasti is an energetic and talented cyclist. But he says it is too early to predict if she can make it to the Olympics. “Swasti has reached a milestone by becoming a national champion. But to become an Olympian she has to pass many more tests. However, nothing is impossible," felt the chief coach.

The heart-warming achievements of Swasti have certainly come as an opportunity for Odisha to expand the popularity of cycling in the state and draw more and more youngsters to its fold. But to cash in on the opportunity, what the state needs to do first is to create infrastructure facility.

Though Odisha boasts of an Arjuna Awardee and many international medalists in cycling, it still lacks a velodrome. At a time, when the State Government gives top priority to promotion of sports, one hopes this need will be taken care of soon. Moreover, cycling has assumed greater importance for a healthy life and it is being viewed as an ideal solution to issues related to air pollution.

"Despite winning national and international medals, Swasti has not yet received any reward from the State Government. But she has never complained," lamented coach Das, emotion palpable in his voice. But he was also quick to suggest that it would be the best reward for Swasti and her ilks of the State if sports-loving Naveen Patnaik takes steps to fulfil the need of a velodrome on priority basis.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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