Vijender Singh’s expression was a combination of confidence and nervousness, as he stood in the gallery at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium ahead of the girls 800m final in the athletics competition in the inaugural Khelo India School Games here on Friday. He would not engage in conversation with anyone till the race was completed.

His ward, the diminutive Tai Bamhane was up against the Kerala duo of Priscilla Daniel and Sandra AS. And, from the distance, he only had to watch her body language when she entered the track. He need not have worried as Tai Bamhane – a Warli tribal from western Maharashtra – ran the two-lapper with the assurance and fearlessness of a seasoned runner.

The 15-year-old student of Marathi-medium Vidyaprabodhini Prashala (Nashik) stayed ahead of her rivals, both of whom had clocked faster times in the semifinals heats on Thursday, and won in 2:13.37. As Tai chugged home to gold, Vijender Singh broke into a smile. The tactics he had scripted had worked. Again.

For more than a decade and a half, Vijender Singh has been discovering, encouraging and guiding raw talent from the backwaters. He has been the guiding spirit for a number of athletes like marathoner Kavita Raut, distance runner Sanjivani Jadhav, Ranjit Patel, Kisan Tadvi and many more, working quietly at the grass-roots level to keep producing champions.

“People tell me that since Kavita is an Arjuna Award winner, I am her Dronacharya. I have never sought awards but have always felt proud when my athletes do well each time they step on the track,” said the coach from Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh who has made Nashik his home. “The passion to work with grass-root athletes is God’s gift to me.”

He added, “Nashik’s year-round climate and the fact that its nearly 700m above sea level helps the middle- and long-distance runners. Yes, the tough life that some of these girls are subject to because of their family backgrounds – they carry 20 to 30 litres water on their heads for a good 15km also prepares them as strong athletes.”

Vijender Singh says that it is a two-way street now with athletes also seeking him out now. “As many as 20 kids who are training with me are from outside Maharashtra,” he said. “We are drawing attention of corporates, too, but we are blessed that a whole bunch of doctors providing wonderful support to our athletes.”

Working as a Sports Authority of India coach in the Bhonsala Military School since 1991, he has not left his penchant to travel long distances in search of talent from the ward level. “One cannot rest just because one has trained athletes like Kavita and Sanjivani,” he said while waiting for Tai Bamhane to complete the anti-doping formalities.

He narrated the story of Tai Bamhane’s discovery, thanks to a cross-country race conducted by Kavita Raut. Born to farm labourers in Dalpatpur, Tai Bamhane used to win events in the village school but after winning the cross-country event, her school’s physical education teacher suggested to her parents that she move to Nashik to train with Vijender Singh.

“We do not know yet which event Tai will finish specialising in. I am a firm believer that advance specialisation in the early years of an athlete’s development is not right,” he said, leading the four-foot nine-inch star away from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.