For this lad from Harsha Chhina village in Amritsar district, Wednesday was all about an Asian Games gold medal. And then a bit more. It was about his ability to stop demons from making his mind their playfield. He had suffered them for far too long. The Asian Games triple jump final was Arpinder Singh’s best chance to banish them once and for all.
There is no doubt that the triple jump is arguably among the most physically demanding event. Besides finding the optimum speed on the runway and the elevation during each phase after taking off, the athlete has to endure enormous force when landing after the hop and step ahead of the jump. Yet, on Wednesday, Arpinder Singh showed he was ready to make it a mind sport, too.
He was dealing with pressure all the time. He is rooming with shot put winner Tajinderpal Singh Toor, who kept telling him to win gold; The start list installed him as one of the two favourites alongside China’s Zhu Yaming as the only ones who bested the 17m mark this year; What’s more, India had not won an Asian Games triple jump medals since S Balasubramaniam’s bronze in 1982.
Mohinder Singh Gill was the last Indian to win an Asian Games triple jump gold. Arpinder Singh was not even born till 22 years later. It is understandable that such statistics did not matter to him. Not on Wednesday night. For, his own wait to get to the pit appeared to be longer than he would have liked.
A light breakfast, a lighter lunch (an apple) punctuated his day. And when he got to the Athletics Stadium in the GBK Sports Complex, he could sense the butterflies in his stomach. Clearly, he was anxious for it to start, let alone for it to be over and done with it quickly. Yet, he calmed himself down with his warm up routine and he was ready for the contest.
He said he wanted to make a statement with his opening jump. “It is the best way to put others under pressure,” he said. He hit sand well past the 16.50m mark but when he turned around, he was dismayed to see the judge hold up the red flag. He was ruled to have over-stepped the take-off board, though he says his spikes did not feel that way.
A foul to start the competition with. It was half an invitation for the demons to come and occupy all crannies in the mind. As he walked back to his seat by the runway, some negative thoughts wormed their way in. The sceptre of registering a no-jump was the biggest of them all. But it took him a few moments to banish them.
With just a bit of prompting from the galleries where Bedrosian was watching him, he did the most sensible thing and fell back on plan B without hesitation. He did not want to fall into the trap of attempting another all-out jump and run the risk of committing another foul. That would surely jeopardise his chances severely.
He ran hard but took off from a good 15 cm from behind the take-off board and got to 16.58m that placed him in the lead. With a guarantee of a top-eight spot at the halfway stage and three more jumps thereafter, he then decided to revert to plan A. It meant establishing dominance over the field and leaving it wondering if his distance could even be challenged on a humid night.
The 25-year-old felt right and wound himself up to go all-out yet again. A swift run-up and a good take off set him up for a jump of 16.77m. It was just as well that he had timed it to perfection since dehydration set in. “I may have erred in not taking in enough fluids because of the anxiety since morning,” he said. “I wanted to be careful and not drink too much water.”
Yet, his own version of mindgames had paid off. Joint favourite Zhu Yaming struggled to find his rhythm and recorded just one jump. His Chinese opponent Cao Shuo needed till his final attempt to leapfrog to the bronze medal position. And, hard as Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Kurbanov tried, he could not pass his personal best of 16.62m that he had secured on his third jump.
The import of this gold medal for one of the most difficult events in track and field sport – and some say the embodiment of the faster, higher and stronger themes – is easier to comprehend than complete a series of six such jumps in high-octane competition. For years, triple jumpers have drawn attention with their inability to match their performance at home in competitions overseas.
His predecessor Renjith Maheshwary’s proclivity to come a cropper in international events frustrated so many that it has weighed every other jumper. On Wednesday night, by jumping as far as 16.77m, Arpinder Singh ensured that he won his biggest prize with a very creditable jump. So many monkeys were off the back.
Try talking to him about the number of coaches he has worked with and he will quickly bring the focus on how working with Bedrosian has been useful for him. “I am in very comfortable space, training with him. I think of all of us, including the Federation, are on the same page. There is little else one can ask from the system,” he says.
Those who have tracked his career will speak of how coach Sukhdev Singh Pannu was instrumental in unearthing his talent and honing his skills to be able to secure bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. It may have come as a distraction to a young man, uninitiated in the art of dealing with success.
He went to England ahead of the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 to try and find ways to improve as a jumper. Confused technique can be a 17m jumper’s worst nightmare. And his career took a dive, his best that year being 15.99m. He returned home to try and find answers to his problems. And more importantly to find himself and his core values.
As he boarded the bus to the Games Village, with the Asian Games gold medal tucked in his bag, he knew that he can clear the mind of any doubts that allows to surface. And, he knew that even if Tajinderpal Singh Toor would engage him in conversation and in a musical routine in celebration, he had gained layers of knowledge in the art of making triple jump a most mental sport.