Priyanka Goswami and Sandeep Kumar take their friendly rivalry all the way to the Olympics

Priyanka Goswami and Sandeep Kumar at the National and International Race Walking Championships in Ranchi. AFI/Twitter

Priyanka Goswami has a longstanding - albeit friendly - rivalry with fellow race walker Sandeep Kumar. This was going to be inevitable of course. Both are elite, highly-competitive sportspersons in the same event -- the 20km race walk. They practice at the same facility, the Sports Authority of India campus in Bangalore and have shared the same coach in two-time Olympian Gurmeet Singh for the last two years.

Priyanka, 24, says she's teased by the decade-older Sandeep in the manner of an older, more-accomplished sibling. He was able to do so by virtue of being an Olympian (from the 2016 Games) and a national record holder over the 50km distance. "He'd always joke that no matter what time I record in my event, he'll always finish ten minutes ahead of me," Priyanka says. Sandeep admits winding up his compatriot ahead of the National Race Walking Championships held in Ranchi on Saturday. "I was joking that she needed to be focused or I'd beat her by 12 minutes rather than 10," he says.

As it turns out, Priyanka took gold in the women's 20km event with a time of 1:28.45, only about eight minutes behind Sandeep, who won the men's race in 1:20.16. But while Priyanka might have had the last laugh, both would end up with equally big smiles on their faces as they stood on the podium. For both had not only set new national records - Priyanka erasing the old mark of 1:29.54 set by Bhawna Jat last year and Sandeep eclipsing KT Irfan's mark of 1:20.21-but also booked their tickets to Tokyo, becoming the first two Indians to qualify for the Olympics Games this year.

Sandeep has competed in the Olympics before and in Bangalore, he's told Priyanka and other younger athletes about the challenge and scale of the greatest tournament in athletic sport. Priyanka can't wait for what will be her first crack at the Games. When she told her father over the phone, he broke down crying. The more she thinks about it herself, the more she marvels at how far she's come. "Even to have reached this level is a blessing," she says.

Born in Sagdi, a small village in Western UP's Muzaffarnagar district, Priyanka says she could easily have gone her entire life not knowing what the Olympics were. "There's nothing to do in my village. I'd have ben a housewife like every other girl there. But when I was in class four, my mother told my father they'd have to move to a city if me and my brother had to have any opportunities in life," she says.

The family moved to the nearest large town - Meerut - where Priyanka began attending the local government school. Although money was tight -- her father worked as a bus conductor - she got the opportunities her mother had hoped for her. "When I went to school, I took part in everything I could. I always put my hand up. One day, when I was in class six, a coach asked who all wanted to become gymnasts, I put my hand up for that as well," she says.

After a set of trials, she was eventually selected to join the KD Singh Sports Hostel in Lucknow. "I was very excited at first, but after a few days, I began to hate it. I was far away from home, the training was very painful and one of my coaches used to beat the students," she recalls. She stuck it out for six months before finally returning home to Meerut. She was so put off by her first experience of formal sports that it would take her another four years before she made another attempt at it.

"Even though I hated gymnastics, I loved sports and running in a stadium. Finally one day in class 11th, I decided to go to the Meerut sports stadium. That's when I started training as an athlete. Although she chose to become an athlete, race walking came by accident. "One day, we had a district-level competition. Once again, I took part in every race there was but I didn't win a single one. The only race left was a race walk event. They only had three participants so they needed another one," she says.

Although she'd never participated in one before, Priyanka learned she was something of a natural in the event. Unlike running, where athletes can lift both feet in the air, race walkers need one foot to maintain contact with the ground at all times. "It needs a lot of flexibility. Although I hated gymnastics when I had to train as one, it gave me a lot of flexibility," she says.

Having gained the knowledge of what she was good at, she started training as a race walker, finding success almost immediately. Within a year of starting the event, she won a silver medal at the 2011 Youth Nationals. She'd never look back from that result. She would go on to win gold medals in the race walk events at the Junior nationals in 2014, setting a national record that was only broken last week.

Priyanka acknowledges her family's support throughout her career. "I knew so many athletes who had the talent but never even had a chance to do anything," she says. In her case, even before she'd won her first race, her father sold his village land in order to buy his daughter a Scooty.

"He knew that the distance from our home to the stadium was nearly 10 kilometers and that it was very difficult for me to make that journey without it. I hadn't even taken part in my first race back then. He didn't even know I'd even be successful," she says. When Priyanka had to travel for competitions, her father who'd lost his job as a conductor, drove a taxi. When matters grew desperate, the family took out loans. "We are still under a debt of 6 lakh rupees," says her mother Anita.

Now employed in the Indian Railways, Priyanka's able to contribute to the family's finances. But her focus remains her sport. She'd nearly qualified for the Olympics at last February's Race Walking Nationals itself but ultimately fell 34 seconds short of the Olympic standard while coming second. She wasn't very worried back then since she felt she'd go under the qualification mark at the Asian Race Walking Championships in March. That tournament, however, would be cancelled, as would the remainder of the year's competitions.

Priyanka's training was also hit owing to the lockdown imposed in India to curb the spread of the pandemic. Although she returned home to Meerut, she was forced to return to Bangalore since all stadiums in the city were shut. Although she lost about a month of training, she's not missed a day's training since. "My routine follows a circle in Bangalore. It's hostel, mess hall and practice ground and nothing else," she says.

It's a pattern that's paid off though. "I'm very happy with my performance. My aim was to qualify, which I did. But I think that I can finish faster. At the end of the race, I felt I still had a lot of energy. I know I can push myself even more," she says. As things stand, Priyanka's result in Ranchi would place her 12th among athletes going to the Olympics (going by timings recorded in 2019 - the last year where no competitions were cancelled).

With a little luck, coach Gurmeet expects her to finish inside the top ten at Tokyo. "There was a little pressure on her because this was the only tournament in which she could qualify for the Olympics. There were no other chances after this. Her only priority here was to meet the Olympic standard. Her timing here was limited by the competition. There was no one to push her. But she's still improving and in Tokyo, she'll surely go even faster," he says.

This is what Priyanka tells her compatriot Sandeep to watch out for as well. "After the race, he was telling me that this race was an exception and he'll be ten minutes faster than me in Tokyo. I told him I'll make it even closer than this time," says Priyanka.