Asiad silver winner, ‘The silent monk', Ajay Saroj is waiting for Rs 1.5 crore prize money to repay loans

Saroj says he reads books by Swami Vivekanand to keep his mind calm

India’s long distance foreign coach Scott Simmons' impression of middle distance athlete Ajay Kumar Saroj was of a calm young man when they met during a training camp at Bengaluru. So he gave a new name to Saroj, ‘The Silent Monk’. “My first impression of Saroj being so calm and silent made me name him ‘The silent monk’. said Simmons.

The 26-year-old Indian athlete clinched silver in men’s 1500m final in Hangzhou Asian Games earlier this month. The level headedness has been Saroj’s biggest strength as a middle distance runner, "The same is true about his race tactics and that’s what he showed in Hangzhou. He adjusted to the conditions well and to see him win his first Asian Games medal in a calm manner has made me expect more medals from him at the international level,” Simmons told in an interview with the Indian Express.

Saroj accompanied his father, Dharamraj as he worked as a plumber in Kajiani village near Allahabad. He recalls, “My father used to take me to the village ground after his plumbing work and show me the village athletes toil hard. Pehle pehle toh 300 rupaye ke shoe ki tension rehti thi par ek bar daudna shuru kia toh dimag main bus running chalti thi. (Initially, I would worry about the Rs 300 running shoes.. But once I got into running, I would think about only running at the village track and later stadium). A lot of times, my father would take loans from relatives or my brother would spend his salary on my training."

Saroj followed his older siblings into the sport. His elder brother Ajit is a 800m and 1500m national-level runner and sisters Shashi and Shastri, both competed in 5000m and 10000m at the national level. 

The young man from UP won bronze medal in 1000m in junior nationals in Lucknow in 2012 which earned him the attention of coach Jaswinder Bhatia. Saroj started training under Bhatia at Lucknow and went on to finish at the fifth place in Youth Olympic Games in China in 2014 followed by a gold in Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Vietnam in 2016. The same year he broke records when he clocked a timing of three minutes and 44 seconds to win the gold at the Indian Grand Prix in Delhi. He also won the gold in pre-tournament event of Jakarta Asian Games with a timing of three minutes and 43.85 seconds. 

“My target was always the 1500m and I would always think of it as a race to run in stages. My strong part has been the push at the end but that too comes from the planning for the first 1000-1200m. It requires a lot of patience to wait for your chance till the first 1000-1200m and I would read books by Swami Vivekanand to keep my mind calm and to plan my races with a strategic mind,” said Saroj in the interview with Indian Express.

He unfortunately missed the Jakarta Asian Games due to leg fracture, but Saroj became the Asian champion in 1500m with a timing of three minutes and 46.49 seconds in Bhubaneshwar the same year. Saroj has clinched an Asian Championship silver in Doha in 2019 and made his best ever timing of three minutes and 38.24 seconds this year at the World Championships in Budapest before the Asian Games.

At Hangzhou, Saroj took 3:38.94 seconds to finish second as Mohamad Al-Garni of Qatar made gold in three minutes and 38.36 seconds. While Jinsen Johnson won the bronze medal.

Before the Asian Games this year, Indian runners had trained in the Colorado springs. “While we took some time adjusting to the altitude of Colorado which saw us bleeding from the nose in the initial training sessions, it helped our body to adjust to the conditions. The conditions helped us to work on the stamina required for the 1500m race as well the speed required to set the pace in Asian conditions too. I also got to spend some time with two-time Olympic 5000m medalist Paul Chelimo and he stressed the importance of being in a good mental space apart from tactics to win medals at the international stage,” said Saroj.

Coach Simmons believes that Saroj can improve further, he said, “1500m is a tactical race and he waits for his chance especially in the last 250m. He is training with 5000m and 10,000m athletes to work on his endurance and specific fitness for the 1500m has make him improve."

Saroj though, said that he is waiting for the Rs 1.5 crore prize money by the UP government to repay his loan and use the excess of Rs ten lakh for training. “I work in railways and most of my salary goes in repaying the loan amount. I plan to pay off all the debts as well as building a new home for my parents with the money apart from buying some more Swami Vivekanand books,” Saroj commented.

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