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Thursday, October 26, 2000


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Sonepat comes to Delhi to take home its champion
R. RAMACHANDRAN


NEW DELHI, OCTOBER 25: At 3.30 in the morning at Palam's Indira Gandhi International Airport, the mist foretold the story of a winter waiting outside. There was chill in the breeze but draped in heavy blankets, they came in trucks with garlands and bouquets.

There were men, women and school-children and they came all the way from Sonepat. They were not there to greet a politician or a filmstar -- they were there to take home a champion.

One big happy, extended family of a Haryana village waited for the 17-year-old Seema Antil who was coming from Santiago, Chile, after winning the discus-throw gold in the World Junior Athletic Championship. Seema is the first Indian ever to win an athletic gold in a world meet.

Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) Secretary Lalit Kumar Bhanot, Coach Jaswant Singh and a few other officials were also waiting for their only star in a long time.

The flight had been delayed by two hours, said Anandpal Singh, an international wrestler and Seema's elder brother. The villagers who sat huddled together talked only about the girl next door who won a gold medal in a faraway field. Seema's father, advocate Vijaypal Singh, could not even speak as they kept stuffing his mouth with sweets. His younger son Amitpal served tea to the waiting crowd.

As Seema arrived, accompanied by junior athletics coach Joginder Singh Saini and five other athletes, the terminal burst out in celebrations. Seema hugged her parents and brothers and touched the feet of K.S. Gullia, her coach in the formative years, and village elders. Flashbulbs clicked away and TV cameras rolled as Seema posed with her gold medal dangling around her neck.

``Going into the finals, I knew I could win a medal. But I never expected that it would be a gold. Now my plans are to concentrate for the next Asian Games in Pusan and, of course, I will have realised my dream when I win an Olympic medal,'' said Seema.

Rajinder Hooda, a village elder, fumbled for words. ``Yeh hamare liye gaurav ki baat hai. Hame ummid thi ki yeh zaroor medal jeetegi. (This is a matter of pride for us, we were sure she would win a medal.'' The others nodded.

After a round of celebrations, the crowd disappeared with their champion. In the evening it was AAFI's turn to celebrate at Taj Palace. Though Suresh Kalmadi, president of the Indian Olympic Association and the AAFI, could not make it to the `party', he announced an award of Rs 1 lakh to Seema. Major O.P. Bhatia, Executive Director of Teams Wing of the Sports Authority of India, said that the government was considering a substantial reward. A special training programme abroad was on the anvil too.

Coach Saini relived her moments of glory in Santiago: ``After reaching the finals, she had told me that she would win a medal. She did not show any nervousness. The field at Santiago was world class. But it did not affect her even one bit. She was the last one and she mustered all her might to heave the discus. And there it was: 55.27 metres!''

Saini said that within a year of her induction into the senior camp, Seema had improved by nearly 10 metres. Bhanot added: ``We knew about her potential but, to be frank, none of us had thought that she would exceed our expectations.''

Her throwing coach Jaswant Singh, who is also the husband of senior thrower Neelam J. Singh, said: ``For a coach, it is a just reward. It's good now that Neelam will have competition within India.''

Seema, who started as a hurdler and a long-jumper because of her height, was spotted by Jaswant in 1994 at the Lucknow Federation Cup. He had to brush up the basics and the rest came naturally to her.

Seema is now going to relax for a while. ``I am going to enjoy this occasion for a while and celebrate Diwali a little more than I would have. But soon I will put these things behind and be back at training. Sir (coach) has given a few days off but I will continue with the routine exercises at home,'' she said.

Meanwhile, the party is not over yet. The cavalcade moves towards Sonepat -- for another round of celebrations. And a brighter Diwali than ever.

Factfile

Seema Antil, who was born on July 27, 1983, began her career at 11 as a hurdler and a long-jumper. The first-year student at Govt. College, Sonepat, dethroned National champion and Olympian Neelam J. Singh at the Calcutta Open meet (57.30) early this month. She had finished seventh in the senior inter-state meeting in 1999 (47.00) and missed the qualification for Asian Juniors. In just one year, she has added a distance of 10 metres.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

   

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