At the recently concluded 400 metre nationals in New Delhi, a young runner walked up to chief coach Galina Bukharina seeking some “general advice”. Galina looked perplexed. “How can I give you advice without knowing anything about you?” replied Galina with a genial smile.
The 76-year-old Russian-born coach, known for her no-nonsense approach, wanted to watch the athlete first before offering any tips. The next day, Galina closely observed the athlete during her finals and helped her with specific advice.
After a two-decade coaching stint in the United States, Galina took up the job of India’s chief 400m coach. But much before that she was part of the Soviet Union women’s 4x100m bronze-winning team at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. And two decades later, Galina coached the Soviet Union women’s 4x400m team to gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics with a world record timing of 3.15.17s, which still stands.
The coach, with 47 years of experience, spoke to The Indian Express about the challenges she faced, the loss of form and injury to members of the women’s relay team before the Tokyo Olympics and about spotting talent.
It has been a tough year for you…
It has been a tough two years for the whole world but India especially. In the USA, all athletes, all universities competed. But for 21 months in the Olympic cycle, we did not have any competition. We could not go anywhere and had to stay in Patiala due to the Covid-19 situation. Seeing the same faces and following the same routine everyday can get stressful. Few people were down with Covid and some had injuries. But we still managed to keep the core of the men’s team but we completely lost the women’s team.
What went wrong with the women’s 4×400 metre relay squad?
In February, the key runner Anjali Devi got injured. The whole team sort of fell apart after that. Everyone was upset. After that, Anjali decided not to undergo surgery, which was a wrong call. With surgery, she could have recovered much faster.
You still spend a lot of time reading. How important is that?
Some coaches think they know everything. You have to keep learning all your life. There are so many new techniques to training. The internet is completely open and you can get everything from there. I am on the internet everyday checking not only track and field but other sports too. I started coaching in 1974, so its 47 years now and I am still learning. I need different ideas from different people. It helps in training athletes who are recovering from injuries. I would rather go on the internet to watch some competition on loop than watch some soap opera.
You watched every race from the first heat to the last finals of the two-day 400m nationals. What did you observe?
I was at the Khelo India competition three years ago. It looks like an absolutely different generation now. A lot of tall and fitter athletes. If you see the Under-16 girls, they look taller and fitter than the U-18 women. It shows that the next generation of Indians are getting taller and fitter. It is a coincidence that before I came here, I was in Russia to get my employment visa. I was at the stadium to attend a competition of the same age group and here it was much better.
Did you notice any mistakes or flaws in the youngsters?
I just observed a lot of coaching mistakes. If you are bringing athletes to the national level and if they do not know how to get into the starting blocks, it’s the coach’s mistake. A lot of kids were setting the blocks by hitting on them with their heels. It is a very bad mistake that the coaches should not allow. The blocks are made out of steel and athletes have to realise that they are not hitting the blocks but their Achilles. In a few weeks, it will hurt.
Another common mistake that I observed was that a lot of athletes were going into the blocks with their legs and that’s absolutely incorrect. If you go on the internet, you will see how all top athletes go into the blocks. They first set their arms and then move back to set their legs into the blocks.
How was your short post-Olympic vacation in the US?
I had some health problems. I had osteoporosis, some generative changes in my spine. It was near the neck region and because of that, I had trouble moving my right arm. I had two spine injections and that’s all my vacation was. I did a lot of exercises to restore movement in my arm. I am 76 now. I am not getting younger or healthier.
What have you learnt about India in the last four years?
In the USA, I saw how youngsters wait to turn 18 to get out of the house. Here I saw how much kids are attached to their families. Once Dharun’s (Ayyasamy) mother fell ill with Covid, he didn’t even take one second and left the camp to be with her. (MR) Poovamma’s family follows her everywhere. I know that kids who have so much love for their families cannot ever think of doing anything evil. My daughter is partially like American kids. I am living in Patiala and everyone who works in the camp is so proud of their family.