Army Sports Institute, Pune
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When Jeremy Lalrinnunga won a weightlifting gold for India at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games on Monday, cheers rang in the halls of Pune’s Army Sports Institute where he was first honed as an 11-year-old in 2012. Jeremy’s medal had once again proved that the institute’s 21-year-old plan to win at the Olympics was working. The 72-acre ASI in the middle of Pune has worldclass infrastructure, but its scouts, who traverse the country looking for kids who may one day run faster, dive deeper, lift heavier and outlast all others, are its secret sauce. Jeremy was their find.
“We saw him in his hometown near Aizawl. He seemed a good contender for the weightlifting group,” says Naib Subedar LD Krishna, who trains weightlifters at ASI and was one of the coaches who picked Jeremy for its Boys Sports Company (BSC), a special sporting unit for under-18 athletes.
Achinta Sheuli, who won another weightlifting gold in the 73kg category at Birmingham, and London Olympics boxer L Devendro Singh also cut their sporting teeth at the BSC. Neeraj Chopra, who won the javelin gold at last year’s Olympics, is an alumnus as well with a trainingfacility named after him now.
While the Sports Authority of India and many private centres now train promising junior athletes, ASI was the first with a residential training centre for young boys back in 2001 when only China, Russia and some countries in the West had them.
ASI commandant Col Devraj Gill remembers how the institute was born after the then chief of army staff General S Padmanabhan was asked if the Indian Army could do something for sports in the country. “We then went to work and conceptualised ‘Mission Olympics’ to identify core disciplines where the Army had a strong base and the medal probability at the Olympics was ‘high’. ”
They started with wrestling, weightlifting, athletics, boxing and archery, and added fencing and diving later. Everything from diet to exercise, training and dis- cipline was then overhauled to build just one thing – an ASI that’s a “conveyor belt for talent” that can “win at the Olympics”.
When the institute realised “mental blocks” were costing athletes medals, it introduced sports psychology training. “A few seconds of mental block became the difference between victory and defeat during the Tokyo Olympics… we can’t overcome this problem unless we train our athletes mentally too, at very early stages,” says Col Gill.
The institute also goes out of its way to nurture talent. When Dronacharyaawardee boxing coach BB Mohanty brought a 9-yearold boxer named L Devendro Singh from Manipur, he says they realised “we had to get teachers for class IV schooling as we only had classes from class V at ASI. ” Adjustments were made, and Singh went on to win a silver at the Asian meet and participate at the London Games.
BSC recruits are mostly from families of humble means, says Mohanty, who retired in 2019. They get proper schooling along with sports training, and their board and stay are taken care of. Some drop out, butthose who stay on are inducted into the Army oncethey turn 18.
Eyes On The Future
The young trainees atASI have their eyes on thefuture. Sachin from Bhiwaniin Haryana came to the institute as an 11-year-old fouryears ago. He is training tobe a racewalker. Althoughhis folks have no idea aboutthe sport they are happy he’sin Pune. “My father is a farmerand mother is a homemaker. They didn’t hesitate to sendme here. They have a lot offaith in the Army,” he says. Supradeep Saha, a13-year-old diver from Howrah in West Bengal, says hewas homesick at fi rst butknows that his dream of representing India and winningan Olympic medal rests uponhis staying at the institute.
Spotting Ripe Talent
Besides picking raw talent, the ASI also looks forpromising athletes at sporting events. That’s how theyfound Neeraj Chopra at anational meet in 2016. “Ourjob is to get them on boardand train them further,” saysCol Gill. The third route to ASIis through the Army’s ownsports meets where scoutspick potential winners. Steeplechaser Avinash Sable wasone of their finds. “I saw Avinash at oneof the inter-unit meets inHyderabad. He used to runcross-country then, butwhen we saw him we thoughthis style and temperamentsuited steeplechase more,”says former ASI athleticschief coach Captain AmrishKumar, who also spottedNeeraj and moved him tothe Army’s rolls. Avinash,26, will run in the 3000msteeplechase at Birmingham.
As in 2023
Champion and Sambhav are part of a group of nine athletes — all aged either seven or eight — who, until a few months ago, were gymnasts in the making but were convinced by ASI Pune scouts into taking up diving, a sport that may be very different but still has many commonalities.
While the diving program has been a part of the ASI Pune for decades now, starting this year, there has been a policy shift to not look at what the army’s sports wing classifies as ‘raw talent’ (kids who have never competed in any other sport before) and rather focus purely on talent transfer from gymnastics, which like diving, is a sport where careers take off notoriously early.
At the ASI Pune campus, like Champion and Sambhav there are 30 more divers training. While 25 of these are children who are part of the Boys Sports Company, seven of these are senior divers, who were also scouted young. Most of them are scouted from the states of Manipur, West Bengal and Maharashtra.
And it includes the likes of H London Singh, who is currently in Fukuoka as the lone Indian diver competing at the Aquatics World Championships. While London did not have a gymnastics background, another diver who has represented India at the World Championships in the past, Siddharth Pardeshi, was scouted from a gymnastics event.
London and Siddharth are the only two divers who will compete for India at the Asian Games in Hangzhou later this year.
Tried and tested strategy abroad
Many countries have capitalised on the strategy of looking at gymnasts and turning them into divers in a bid to win Olympic medals. Australia, in particular, has had a lot of success by converting gymnasts into divers: Chantelle Newbery (Olympic gold and bronze medallist in diving), Briony Cole and Brittany Broben (both Olympic silver medallists) and Alexandra Croak (World Championships silver medallist) were all gymnasts at one point in their careers.
For India, it’s a desperate, yet ingeniously pragmatic, way as the country looks to make inroads into a sport that offers eight gold medals at the Olympics (at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, there will be 10 golds), but one in which it has limited talent, sparse infrastructure and no tradition.
While China enjoys a vice-like stranglehold on the sport — they won seven out of eight gold medals at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, besides winning nine out of 12 events at the 2019 world championships — the sport is a safe bet in a sense because it has been a regular feature at the Olympics since making its debut at the 1904 Olympic Games in St Louis.
The 10-metre high-dive and 3-metre springboard events have been part of the Olympic program since Amsterdam 1928. The synchronised diving events in both springboard and platform have been around since Sydney 2000. In short, diving does not suffer the same volatility over its presence on the Olympic program that sports like boxing, wrestling and shooting, where India has an Olympic pedigree, have experienced over the last decade.
The scouting process
ASI Pune coaches and scouts spent almost 10-11 months of the year travelling to sub-junior competitions for the seven sports that they train athletes in. For diving, they also visit gymnastics clubs in states that have a rich culture in the sport.
This year, the chief coach for diving at ASI, M Kunjakishor Singh, selected 47 kids pan-India. Out of them, 30 came to ASI for tests run by sports scientists. And eventually, nine were finally picked to learn diving, all from gymnastics background. “Both sports are very similar. The neuro-muscular coordination has to be great because you’re making the body do things that the normal human cannot. There are just minor tweaks required. In gymnastics you land on the feet on a mat, in diving you go head-first into the water. We’re looking at a certain amount of flexibility in the limbs, whether the body can take that amount of stress and how supple the athlete’s body is,” says Lieutenant Colonel Nikhil Allen Singh, who is a Talent Scouting Officer at the ASI Pune and is in charge of diving.
He points out that since diving requires early specialisation, going to swimming events to scout for talent is almost futile since the earliest age group of kids will be around 12 years old, an age that’s already “too late to be a diver”.
“If this was a sport where an athlete can dive till 31 or 32, I would have gone and scouted 12 years or older kids also. But this is a young body’s game. So, we go to gymnastics clubs to scout kids who are aged around eight.
“Earlier, we used to take kids classified as raw talent as well. But this time, I suggested skill-specific boys, rather than calling for raw talent. Last year, some 4,000 boys came. But from those, the kids that go on to succeed at the national and international level, the percentage is not even one per cent. “So this is a better way. This is the first time we have shifted from raw talent to game-specific talent. Rather than starting from ground zero, at least there is a base. There are some skills that we can tweak. This is a good way of capitalising the time being invested to maximise results,” says Lt Col Singh.
Dryland training to conquer fear
Convincing parents of eight- and nine-year-olds to join ASI is the slightly easier part because there is an understanding that they will be getting jobs in the army. The more difficult part is for the kids to live for months at a stretch without their parents. At the ASI Pune campus, as the kids come to terms with their spartan lifestyle, the coaches turn into second parents of sorts for the kids even as they start chiselling divers out of them. In a few years, depending on what their body can do, they will be trained to specialise in either the platform events like 10m or the springboard events like 3m.
“Athletes who can generate a lot of power from their thighs get picked for springboard events. Those who have quicker reaction times are picked for platform,” says Sourav Debnath, who hails from Hoogly in West Bengal and is a 10m platform specialist.
Early specialisation is one of the reasons ASI divers do well. Their dryland training pit — which was set up in 2012 — and other indoor apparatus at the sprawling facility in Pune’s Koregaon Park are another big reason. Dryland training happens over two deep pits filled with foam cubes that is a lot easier on the body than water.
There is also a horizontal bar in the indoor training facility with a giant wheel at the end. Divers are strapped on the bar and a teammate or coach turns the wheel, making the diver’s body turn as well. It’s an apparatus for divers to work on their somersaults.
“Yeh diving bohot injury-wala game hai. Itna maar khaya hai. Board main bhi aur paani main bhi. If you fall flat in the water from a height of 10m, you’re going to lose consciousness. I’ve lost count of how many times this used to happen when we used to train in diving back in my day,” says coach Kunjakishor, who himself started diving in 1996 and traces his roots to gymnastics.
“The dryland pit is the best way for divers to get better. When you practice your dives over water, you pick up knocks and injuries. But over the dryland pit, you can chase perfection,” he adds.
The dryland pit is the diver’s best ally to conquer fear. It also helps when divers have been out of practice for a few weeks or months, either due to injury or vacation, when the out-of-touch body is just a millisecond slower to react.
“When you come back from a break, it takes a couple of months to find that form in the dryland pit. Only then do we venture out of the pool to dive from the platform,” says Debnath.
In India, there are not too many divers who do 10m platform dives, he adds.
“Dar sabhi ko lagta hai. But the more you practice, the more the fear shrinks. But fear is a tricky, obstinate thing. You go on a long break and come back, that fear grows in size when you return to the top of the platform once more. Jab ghoom ke girte ho, kuch bhi ho sakta hai. Anything from your skin tearing to eardrums getting damaged can happen if you land wrong,” says Debnath.
Another factor that breeds fear is the lack of competition. At present, there is just one tournament at a national level annually – the National Championships – and India’s participation in international competitions is limited.
And unsurprisingly, because of their programme, Army divers dominate the national scene. At the recent Nationals, out of nine medals on offer in diving, ASI athletes won eight. “And we thought that was poor. Where did we lose that one medal? But that’s also a sad thing because there’s no competition outside,” says Lt Col Singh.
That trend looks unlikely to change anytime soon, with the impending arrival of an Irish coach to groom the next-gen divers like Sambhav and Champion, the eight-year-old gymnasts-turned-divers, on whom the Army has taken a punt.