Esow Alben was just three years of age when the deadly tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on Boxing Day 2004.
More than 2,000 people lost their lives in the trail of utter devastation that followed on the remote archipelago some 1,400 kilometers from the Indian mainland.
Esow was fortunate to live with his family in a property on high ground above the capital Port Blair so escaped unscathed, unlike so many others on that fateful day.
Fast forward to 2020 and the now teenage Esow is making headlines for his birthplace for very different reasons, a beacon of hope for the future after the terrors and uncertainty of the past.
The 18-year-old is the rising young star of Indian sport, tipped for the top in the highly specialist sport of track cycling, but mature enough to realize his greater responsibilities.
“I want to be an ambassador for both the islands and for India,” Esow told CNN.
‘Aim for the diamond’
In an unprecedented achievement, India, led by Esow, won the gold medal in the team sprint at the world junior championships in Germany last year, stunning Australia in the final. He also bagged individual medals in both the sprint and his favored event of the keirin.
Now entering the senior ranks, Esow has the 2024 Olympics in Paris in his sights and top step on the podium.
“My coach tells me to aim for the diamond and you can settle for the gold,” he said with a smile.
Esow’s exploits have not gone unnoticed and earned him an invite to the prestigious Berlin Sechstagerennen (Six Day) event in the German capital, where he quickly made his mark against competitors vastly more experienced, including the Olympic silver medalist and nine-time Berlin Six Day Sprint champion Maximilian Levy of Germany.
The first Indian to compete in the 109th staging of the event, he was accompanied by his favorite Bollywood-style music as he circled the 250-meter velodrome ahead of his timed individual attempts over one-lap.
With a squat and muscular build, Esow has all the physical tools for track sprinting and reached speeds well in excess of 70 kph (44 mph) before lunging for the line to extract the last millisecond for the timed effort.
As expected, Levy dominated the competition, but on the penultimate night had to make way for the young upstart as Esow kept him at bay and then powered past Tomas Babek of the Czech Republic, a former world championship silver medalist, to win the keirin event.
Other outright wins escaped him, but Esow had already become a crowd favorite with his attacking style and showboating antics.
“I’m a showman, I like to play to the crowd,” he said. “It’s such a great honor to race here and I like to give something back.”
In a country where cricket dominates the front and back page headlines, Esow’s achievements are gaining traction among the wider Indian public, a scenario all the more remarkable given where he hails from.
The makeshift cycling track on the islands was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, but this did not stop the young Esow from trying to emulate his father, who was a keen cyclist himself.
As a child he did try cricket. “I played when I was eight years old, but not too much,” he said.
His talents clearly lay in other areas, his powerful physique better suited to individual non-ball sports.
The Sports Authority India (SAI) came calling in 2014 after Esow took part in a series of trials to test his aptitude in various sports.
He was initially pointed in the direction of rowing, picked to attend a special sports school in Port Blair, but he quickly switched to his first love of cycling.
A silver medal at the Under-15 national track championships in 2015 kickstarted his meteoric rise and Esow was fast tracked to India’s national cycling training center in New Delhi.
The Indian capital hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and with it came much-needed new sports stadia, including a 250-meter indoor cycling velodrome, the first in the country and a must for international level training and competition.
The cost of providing these facilities and the other infrastructure, with millions of Indians still living in grinding poverty, plus problems with the organization in the build-up to the event, left many to question the wisdom of India hosting such a major Games.
However, the SAI did take the opportunity to up its game, including a fledgling development program for track cycling, purchasing the specialist bike equipment from a British-based manufacturer.
National coach RK Sharma, who accompanied his prodigy Esow to Berlin, believes it has been the vital ingredient in their success.
“There was a lot of controversy about India hosting the Commonwealth Games, but because of them we have world-class stadiums in Delhi and most of the national teams are making use of them,” Sharma told CNN.
A former national standard cyclist who took retirement from the Indian Air Force before embarking on his coaching career, Sharma has overseen a program that is producing a string of world class junior sprinters.
Esow’s teammates in the golden team sprint triumph, Y Rojit Singh and L Ronaldo Singh, still have another year in junior ranks, with the latter ranked world No.1 in the sprint and keirin individual disciplines, so the future looks bright.
Young female Indian sprinters are also in the upper echelons of the world junior rankings, no doubt inspired by the achievements of Deborah Harold, who also hails from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and was nine years old when the tsunami struck.
In the chaos, she was swept away from the grip of her parents and only survived by climbing up a tree while the torrent raged below her.
She later attended the same sports institute in Port Blair as Esow, progressing to win medals at Asian championship levels and qualifying for senior world championship events.
Harold’s achievements aside, Esow is the first athlete from the islands to make their mark on the world stage in any sport and hopes to prove an inspiration to others.
‘Like an elder brother’
He takes his inspiration from Malaysia’s pocket rocket Azizulhasni Awang, who has led the way in Asian cycling with a gold medal at the 2017 world championships in the keirin and bronze in that discipline at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
The two faced each other in the quarterfinals of the sprint competition at the Asian Games last year and Awang was impressed by his young rival.
“He came to the pit and asked how old is he?” said Sharma, who told the Malaysian he was just 18 years old.
“I had such a tough time with him,” said Awang.
The step up from junior to senior competition is a steep one and to beat the likes of Awang and Levy on a regular basis will require year after year of intensive training at the national center in Delhi.
The last three years has seen the Indian youngsters attend the summer training camp in Cottbus, Germany, with Levy taking a particular interest in Esow.
“Max has been like an elder brother to Esow, helping him and guiding him,” said Sharma.
The Indian team were at the Cottbus track on the fateful day in June 2018 when German Olympic star Kristina Vogel suffered life-changing injuries in a horror crash in training.
Hungry for success
The accident is a reminder of the dangers of track cycling as riders race around steep velodromes at high speeds on a fixed-wheel bike with no brakes.
Esow’s hero Awang infamously had his leg pierced through by a 20-centimeter-long wood splinter after crashing at a World Cup event in 2011, and the young star has had a few tumbles on the way.
“I focus them a lot on technique and balance,” said Sharma. “But racing within inches of each other at 70 kph, accidents sometimes happen.”
In a sport dominated by traditional cycling nations, securing places at the 2024 Olympics will be no mean feat, with Sharma targeting 2022 as an important year, with both the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England and the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.
The year will also mark the start of the qualification period for Paris 2024, with points being awarded at World Cup events and the world championships.
Both Esow and Sharma are hungry for success. “If we can win at junior level, why not elite?” said Sharma.
“I want to see our national flag on top at Olympic (Games),” is the intro to Esow’s Facebook page.
Previous Indian success at Olympic Games has mostly come from its field hockey teams with eight of its nine golds, but there is a growing recognition that track cycling can provide the route to more medals.
Esow was voted young Indian sportsman of the year at a recent prestigious awards ceremony in Mumbai, receiving his prize from cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar.
It is set to be the first of many such plaudits for a young man in a hurry with gold in his sights and a steely determination to succeed.