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RIO DE JANEIRO: Lalita Babar on Saturday qualified for the women's 3000m steeplechase final after finishing fourth in the qualifying heat 2 with a national record time while compatriot Sudha Singh was eliminated in the Olympic Games. Lalita also became the first Indian woman to reach track final in Olympics since PT Usha in 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Lalita, who had won the bronze medal in the event in the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, two years ago, in fact finished with the seventh-best time in the heats in a new national record of 9 minutes, 19.76 seconds.
Lalita, in fact, clipped nearly seven seconds off the national mark standing in the name of Sudha Singh (9:26.55), clocked in Shanghai in May.
The top three in the three heats gain automatic qualification while Lalita, hailing from Maharashtra, made the grade as one of the six fastest from among the rest.
Had she run in the third heat she would have qualified as the winner of that race.
Sudha, on the other hand, performed far below her best to finish a distant 9th in heat 2 in a poor 9:43.29 which gave her the 30th spot out of 52 in the qualifiers.
Lalita will be seen in the final of the gruelling race on August 15.
Incheon Asiad gold medal winner and holder of the continental record, Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, clocked the best time in the heats, 9:12.62, while destroying the field in heat 1.
Sofia Assefa of Ethiopia (9:18.75) and Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany (9:19.70) stood behind Jebet in second and third positions to be automatic qualifiers.
In heat 2, Lalita was upstaged by Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya (9:17.55), Emma Coburn of USA (9:18.12) and Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia (9:18.71), all of who ended up as automatic qualifiers.
In heat 3 in which Sudha ran, the top three positions were taken by Jepkemoi Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya (9:24.61), Genevieve Lacaze of Australia (9:26.25) and Courtney Frerichs of USA (9:27.02).
Lalita, in fact, had clocked 9:27.09 at Delhi in the Federation Cup in April, her personal best which was the then national mark that was obliterated two months later by Sudha.
The third Indian athlete in fray in today's action, Nirmala Sheoran, looked totally out of depth in the women's 400m preliminaries in which she finished a distant 35th overall after ending up sixth out of seven runners in heat 1 in 53.03 seconds.
After qualifying for the final, an elated Lalita said that she was looking to give her best in the final on Independence day.
"Now all the focus for the final on the Independence Day," said Lalita, who became the first Indian woman after P T Usha to qualify for the track & field finals in Olympics.
'Payyoli Express' Usha had made the finals of 400m in 1984 in Los Angeles.
She, however, expressed her disappointment for compatriot Sudha Singh for failing to make the cut.
"Felt sad for Sudha who could not qualify. We train under the same coach. It would have been great had she also qualified. The conditions were perfect, there was some trouble initially," said Lalita.
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