Bolting Through Memory Lane


Praveen “Bolt” Kumar is a fifth year Dual Degree student in the Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Department. He is presently the fastest athlete amongst all the IIT’s. A five-time Inter-IIT gold medallist, he has won 16 gold, 10 silver and 11 bronze medals overall. He was also a part of IIT-M’s record-breaking 4x100m relay team and captained the Institute Athletics team in 2013-14.

Five-time Inter-IIT gold medallist in Athletics. 16 gold, 10 silver and 11 bronze medals overall. Inter-IIT record for the fastest 100m relay.

 Some term his 100-metre sprint as “insane” – all his potential, ambition and raw energy unfolding in the ten odd seconds of the sprint. It’s an exciting experience just to watch him run.  Meet Praveen Kumar, insti’s very own Usain ‘Bolt’ and the fastest athlete among all IIT’s.

 You and I may have come to IIT-M for its premier education but what Praveen also saw was the vast sports infrastructure the institute had. One year into Sri Venkateswara University’s engineering programme, he came to know about the IITs and their sports facilities, and decided to attempt the JEE. Post JEE and admission to the Dual Degree in the Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering with Applied Mechanics department, he has been winning insti laurels for five years now.

Praveen’s tryst with athletics goes all the way back to school, when he also went on to compete at district and state levels. Curiously though, he admits that his first love is football. His continued commitment to athletics, however, is evident from his track record in insti.

Praveen’s choice of sport goes back to his first year in insti and illustrates a point or two about the importance of secretaries and hostel seniors. Siva “Teacher” Teja,(Insti Sports Sec, 2011), then Mandak’s Sports Secretary and a member of the Institute Athletics team, identified and motivated Praveen to train for athletics — especially after he won gold in 100-metre for Freshie Schroeter. He practised with the athletics team and eventually got selected to represent the institute. On the other hand, there were no seniors who pushed him to take up football.

 He made waves right away with a gold in his very first Inter-IIT 100-metre race. He reveals a photographic memory as he recounts his races — every single one, complete with details of his start from the blocks, the competitors on the other tracks, the finish-line ribbon and even the cheering crowd in the stands. His freshie race was an exciting one, he says. Coming at a time when IIT Madras teams were struggling to place in other events, it boosted the morale of the entire contingent and the men’s teams went on to win the General Championship that year.

After this victory, there was no giving up on athletics. Wanting to be consistent, he has kept toiling on the track. Although 100m has been his forte, he has worked hard to break into the 200m ranks since his second year. With a lot of training (including training with national athletes in Chennai over the summer of 2014), he succeeded at winning gold in both 100m and 200m events at Inter-IIT 2014  held recently at IIT Bombay, becoming the fastest man amongst all the IITs.

Praveen Aka Bolt

 He has had equally extraordinary teammates. In fact, he counts IITM’s record-breaking 4x100m relay in Inter-IIT 2013 at Guwahati as one of his best races. Everybody ran at their best to bag a gold. He reckons that the team would even have gone on to set the record in 4x100m at the previous meet itself, were it not for his Usain Bolt-like spread of arms to end the race — the resulting increase in aerodynamic drag slowed him down by a fraction of a second! Although the team did go on to win gold then, they were not aware that they could be competing for a record and thus fell a few fractions of a second behind the existing record timing.

 In insti though, everything has remained pretty much the same over the last four years. Praveen is the sprints-champion in Schroeter, so much so that others mostly aim at silver when he is competing. His best timing so far has been 10.8 seconds (Indian best being 10.3 seconds). He also recently finished fourth in the Chennai District championships.

 That athletics is an intensely individual sport makes it rewarding but also immensely challenging. Practice becomes almost dreary, sprinting solo up and down the same track every day. As you keep pushing to improve your timing, it also becomes exhausting. Even for Praveen, who looks forward to practice every day, the routine drives him to the brink of giving up. But the best of athletes, who have survived through it all, often fail from nervousness at the start of a race. In tens of seconds, there is hardly any time to correct a mistake. It takes immense control to steady yourselves and give your best in these conditions — an invaluable skill in any other situation — be it an interview, work or life. Praveen thinks that this has probably been the biggest learning from his athletics training. But clearly, unsatiated with all that he has achieved or learnt, ‘Bolt’ continues to test his limits. For he has a medal in every Inter-IIT and Schroeter, a total of 37, currently, but his wish is to take a 50 of them home. He hopes to win the rest this Schroeter season.

“What’s been his motivation all along?”, I ask. He fumbles, looking for things to say, but finally settles for an answer. “If you are trying to reason out your interests, then you probably do not like them enough. I have always just loved to play. If anybody gave me a football, I would play around with it the whole day without bothering to eat or rest. I have never questioned myself why, though.”

Thankfully for him, neither his parents nor his friends have questioned him why either. He says it would have been impossible for him to manage academics, if not for his friends and wingmates. His parents too, have also allowed him to pursue his interests. He jokes that their biggest concern was that he might get injured due to playing so much.

As he is looking to join the Merchant Navy next, he wonders if he will have access to a football field once he graduates. That’s why it may seem that he is playing out to his heart’s content here – as part of Mandak’s athletics, football, volleyball, hockey and the weightlifting teams! That’s at least twice the number of sports a normal person would understand or follow, let alone play, in a lifetime.

Insti's own Usain Bolt
Insti’s own Usain Bolt

With so many achievements, one is inclined to ask, “why not consider being a professional athlete?” But the life of a professional athlete is hard, what with the heavy training, especially in athletics, where a fraction of a second makes or breaks a champion. While at the national academy during summer last year, Praveen says he saw many quality athletes struggling for sponsorships. If not being a professional athlete himself, he hopes to sponsor their training in future. Down-to-earth(and)inspirational, this IIT boy deserves much applause for all that he has accomplished on the track.

Raghavi Kodati is a senior undergraduate student in the Chemical Engineering department, whose research interests are in microfluidics and materials. While working on this article, she got fascinated by the history of material joining processes – from their use in iron pillars in ancient India to today’s aluminium-lithium SpaceX rockets. Excited about science writing, she has written for three issues of Immerse.

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