Vikas Gowda of India in the discus at the 2013 IAAF World Championships (© Getty Images)
There is a real uniqueness about Vikas Gowda.
Firstly, at an imposing 205cm tall and weighing 140kg, he is a giant of a man. His accent is also surprising; the Indian athlete speaks with a gentle American drawl. Despite his origins, he also has very little interest in cricket, a sport which is a national obsession in India. Instead, Gowda’s passion is athletics and he is good at it. Very good.
The discus thrower is the gold medallist from last year’s Asian Championships. He recently added the Commonwealth Games title with a throw of 63.64m in torrential rain in Glasgow. But there is one achievement that may yet make him the most unique of all Indian athletes.
No Indian athlete has ever won an Olympic gold medal. In fact, the only Olympic track and field medals India can lay claim to is the two silvers by sprinter Norman Pritchard at the 1900 Paris Games. Pritchard was born to British parents in Colonial India, his medals in the 200m and 200m hurdles came a full 47 years before India gained full independence from Britain.
For a country with a population of one billion, India has grossly underachieved in athletics. The country is also still awaiting its first male medallist at the IAAF World Championships (Anju Bobby George is the only Indian medallist ever, winning bronze in the women’s long jump in 2003).
Gowda could yet be that man.
Born in Myore, India, his family moved to Maryland, USA just before he turned six. His father Shive was a former athlete and 1988 Olympic coach. “He was a decathlete and one of the national coaches in India,” said Gowda.
“So when we moved to the US, he started doing some local coaching at the high school (Frederick High School, Maryland). He started his own track club there. I would just go with him and hang out with him and run round the track when I was there.”
Gowda developed his talents in the throws circle and represented India at the 2002 IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica. “That was a big learning experience for me,” he said.
“It was one of my first real major competitions ever. It was a tough competition even back then. There were a lot of good guys. Robert Harting and (Piotr) Malachowski was in the discus. (Usain) Bolt started there. There were a lot of big names in that competition.”
Gowda continued to improve, winning silver at the 2005 Asian Championships. But so disappointed was he with his 22nd place finish at the Beijing Olympic Games, he almost quit the sport. “After Beijing, I didn’t know what I was going to do coaching-wise,” he said.
“I was just kind of coaching myself for two years after college. I had a lot of injuries. I didn’t really know if I was going to keep going. Then I heard John Godina had started a training group in Phoenix, Arizona. After he retired, he started coaching athletes out there.
“So I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll take one last shot at it?’ You can’t get a better situation than John Godina. Four-time world champion (indoors and outdoors), one of the best shot putters ever and an unbelievable discus thrower.
“I took a big chance and moved out there and in just a couple of months I had got so much better. I knew I had made the right decision then. It’s tough when you are really young and trying to coach yourself.
“Discus is not an easy event, that’s why a lot of the best guys are in their late 20s and early 30s; it takes a long time to develop. It took me a long time to re-learn the event and re-build everything.”
Since the move, he has made big strides on the global stage. He was seventh in the men’s discus at the past two World Championships and eighth at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Having now accumulated the Asian Championships and Commonwealth Games titles, he is hungry for more success this year at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakech, Morocco (13-14 September) and the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea (19 September-4 October).
Looking ahead to Marrakech, he said: “I think I qualified last year after I won the Asian Championships. That will be another tough competition. I’ve never represented Asia before, so that will be interesting.”
Beyond 2014, Gowda is optimistic he can challenge at the very highest level. “I think I am getting closer and closer every year,” he says. “I’m learning more and more about how to throw well. I’m growing as a thrower in general. Every year I’m improving, every year I’m getting more consistent. I just keep building and inching up every day.
“Once I get to a good standard in practice, I can maintain a lot of good throws. It took 68 metres just to win a medal at the last Olympics. That was one of the toughest finals ever I think. I have to just keep training hard, keep training smart and I’ll get there.”
As a qualified Maths tutor, Gowda monitors his progress more keenly than most. “I keep track of a lot of the numbers, keep track of the trends and the averages for each practice,” he says. “It’s definitely an upward swing.”
If recent evidence is anything to go by, Gowda may yet have found the winning formula.
Chris Broadbent for the IAAF