“You’re probably a football fan, aren’t you?”
It’s not hard to guess why Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam is so often asked.
Surprisingly for a young man from football-loving Manipur by his name, Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam admits he has little interest in the sport. His association with football begins and ends, he says, with the circumstances of his birth.
The story goes something like this, according to Ronaldo’s retelling. On the afternoon of June 21, 2002, CRPF soldier Roben Singh Laitonjam was in Srinagar to watch Brazil play England in the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup. The game was just a distraction. His wife in Imphal, some 1,300 miles away, was just minutes from giving birth to their first child. In the 50th minute of the game, Ronaldinho set up a free kick when the score was even. Roben made a bet with his teammates – the ball went in. Just as the Brazilian threw the ball over a distraught David Seaman, a call came in – his wife went into labour.
“When the ball went in the goal, I must have started performing. I think my dad won some money that day. That’s probably why I got that name. He felt like I was very lucky for him,” says Ronaldo.
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It is clear that Roben did not pay much attention to the game, otherwise his son should have been named Ronaldinho. According to the current status, Ronaldo also showed little interest in following the footballing path of his namesake.
However, Ronaldo is well on his way to becoming a star himself. At the Asian track cycling championships, which ended in New Delhi on Wednesday, Ronaldo won a bronze medal in the team sprint and a silver medal with a new national record in the men’s elite sprint. If bronze was India’s first medal in the senior category at the Asian Championships, silver was their best-ever result in the same phase. From the looks of it, Ronaldo is well on his way to fulfilling the potential he showed three years earlier – when he made history alongside Rojit Singh and Esow Alban by winning India’s first gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
It’s a journey his father sent him on many years ago, he says. “My father was a great inspiration to me. He put a lot of work into making me an international medalist. That was always his dream. He passed away in 2017 so every time I compete I try to make him proud of me,” he says.
Standing 6ft 1, 92kg, Ronaldo displays a muscular body, with log-sized quadriceps that are almost as thick as the average man’s waist. Hurtling down the velodrome straight at over 45 mph, Ronaldo looks every bit the elite sprinter he is today. But cycling wasn’t the first thing he did.
India’s Ronaldo Singh Laitonjam (left) celebrates after winning the silver medal in the Men’s Elite Sprint at the Asian Track Cycling Championships in New Delhi. – SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
“When I was a kid, my dad taught me to dive. He made me jump into the pool from the highest board. It was very scary. He did this to take away my fear. I did that for three months, then I did gymnastics. I did b-boy things on the street. That made me very flexible. I also swam to develop my muscles,” he says.
However, football was forbidden. “Til today, mereko kick marna nahi aata. (I don’t even know how to kick a ball). My father always told me when I play football mera knee ka alignment kharab ho jayega (My knees are misaligned). That’s why I never recorded it,” he says.
Ronaldo did all of this while trying to understand which sport to focus on. That happened quite by accident. “I found cycling at just the right time. When I was 14 years old, there was a kind of talent hunting competition in Manipur (to select athletes for the National Cycling Center of Excellence in Delhi). I was told to run the 1600m and do push ups. And I was last in both. I must have done 58 push-ups. Some guys I remember doing 110 push ups. It was a miracle that I was chosen. But I got a letter saying I will come to Delhi and face a three-day trial,” he says.
Ronaldo says he went to Delhi with no expectation of being selected. “They told me at the time that out of the six children from Manipur who came to Delhi, only three would be chosen. I thought at least I’d get a chance to see Delhi,” he recalls.
Eventually, however, Ronaldo was chosen. While he wasn’t feeling the best, a newly purchased power circuit suggested otherwise. Rahul Singh witnessed the spark. “Just before Ronaldo came, we had bought a machine that tests performance. Ronaldo was generating about 1400 watts of power even at the age of 14. The average we got at that point was around 1200 watts. He was one of the most natural high-performing athletes we’ve seen,” said Rahul, who has coached Ronaldo at the National Center of Excellence (NCOE) since his inception.
If the coaches wanted the explosive youngster, Ronaldo was fascinated by the camp and the sport. “When I came to the camp I was very impressed with the type of nutrition they were given. I saw they were allowed to eat chicken lollipops and omelettes. As a kid I thought I wanted to go to camp and become an international player so I could eat that too. I also saw how they trained and I saw how fast they went around the corners. I always thought, ‘Wah kya mast log hain, kya style hai (these are such cool people).‘ I want to be like those guys,” he recalls.
His ride since he joined has been smooth. Or at least as much as it can be. Although the track can be a dangerous place – and Ronaldo has the thick scars on his elbows and knees that are responsible for all the times he’s been thrown off his bike and dragged across the rough wooden track – he’s never been afraid to do so hard to drive next time.
“It was probably the high diving I did as a kid. It actually scared me a lot. Being used to falls it wasn’t anything to worry about. It taught me to fight my nervousness and anxiety before competing. That’s why I feel more comfortable with it now,” he says.
What also helped, says coach Rahul, is the fact that Ronaldo has regularly trained and competed abroad along with other members of the Indian squad. “In the past, our cyclists only had a chance to compete with the best athletes in the world at the Asian or Commonwealth Games or maybe a World Championships. They were overwhelmed when they saw the cyclists from the big countries. These kids grew up, trained and competed with these top cyclists. Previously, if some of them were pushing our riders out of the best line for the race, our guys would have just given up. Now Ronaldo will push them right back,” he says.
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Although the 2019 World Junior Championships gold was supposed to be the breakthrough moment for Ronaldo and the rest of the junior squad, the COVID-19 pandemic meant they hit a speed breaker. “The camp was closed and I had to return home to Imphal. That was probably the most difficult time of my life. As cyclists in Europe continued to train, I was stuck at home while a police officer stood in the street outside my house making sure no one was on the street. I lost a lot of self-confidence and fitness back then,” he recalls.
It wasn’t until the camps started up again that Ronaldo was able to take stock of where he was. “I had gained a lot of weight. I did as much physical training as I could at home, but I was almost 100 kg when I got back to camp. But this break gave me a lot of motivation to correct the mistakes I made,” he says.
Ronaldo has put a lot more effort into his training sessions since returning to camp. “I’m very picky. I track my daily progress on my laptop. I don’t wait for anyone to tell me how much I’m doing or where I need to improve. I started analyzing it myself,” he says.
These are not empty words. Coaches say Ronaldo is one of the strongest in the Indian team. Though they don’t like to give exact numbers, they say he squats for reps over 500 pounds.
Ronaldo is also much stronger mentally. India’s preparation for the Asian Championships was marred by the resignation of former head coach RK Sharma following allegations of harassment by a female athlete. Ronaldo says he’s found peace away from the chaos.
“When I get on the track, I forget what’s going on around me or what’s ahead of me. I concentrate completely on my race. If anything, I listen to some soft rock. (The band) Linkin Park is my favorite but these days I listen to (Manipuri rock band) Innocent Eyes,” he says.
With his medals at the Asian Championships, Ronaldo will rise to 36th in the world rankings in the individual sprint. But he wants to go further. “My goal is to be in the top 30 in the world. That’s the number of athletes who qualify for the Olympics, so I need to be there,” he says. The Olympic Games remain his primary goal. With the Commonwealth Games just over a month away, manager Rahul says Ronaldo will be focusing on the World Cup this October – which will yield a lot more ranking points.
While Ronaldo has high expectations of himself, he knows he needs a lot more experience of racing at a high level. In the race for the gold medal at the Asian Championships, for example, his inexperience cost him. After his Japanese opponent went off his track, Ronaldo raised his hand – which resulted in him losing the race for dangerous cycling. “If I had just finished the race I could have asked for a review of the race. My opponent was clearly off track, but because I took my hand off the handlebars, I was immediately disqualified. I’ll learn from that,” he says. “At the senior level, many of my competitors have competed in hundreds of races. That’s experience I’ll get at some point. This year I won my first silver medal in the senior division. Next year I will have the experience to try gold.”
When you consider how far Ronaldo has progressed and what is expected of him, it’s easy to forget that Ronaldo is only 20 years old. “I might look very big and strong and tough on the outside, but on the inside I’m still a kid that Cartoon Network misses,” he says. Like many teenagers his age, he admits he has multiple interests. “I’m good at a lot of things. In the past I learned how to cast magic cards. I’m still b-boying. Then I decided to learn guitar. Nowadays I paint. I paint all things. I do portraits, anime, or even paint shoes.”
However, all of this is secondary. “I’m good at a lot of things, but I don’t do that. My job is cycling. My job is to be very fast. I want everyone to know me as Ronaldo the cyclist,” he says.