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July 11, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/Shiny Wilson

The ace runner heads into the home stretch

Shiny Wilson You could call it the end of an era -- a golden one, for Indian athletics -- when Shiny Wilson finally decided to hang up her boots.

In the last two decades, Shiny and her fellow Keralite, P T Usha, dominated the track, eclipsing all others and single-handedly holding the country's flag high in the Asian athletic scene.

Its been a long run for the daughter of a policeman from a small village in Kerala called Thodupuzha to the Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles. Shiny never really had that burning ambition, that fire, that characterises the hyper achiever -- but she was a willing, hard worker. And the rewards are there to see -- a wall full of medals, collected from all over the world. And, in pride of place, the Padmashree.

Shobha Warrier met the ace athlete at her residence one Sunday recently. Excerpts from an exhaustive interview:

How and when did you come to know that you could run and run really fast?

I really do not know when. When I was young, we had to walk at least a kilometer to school. In the afternoons, all of us -- that included many cousins of mine too -- ran back home to have our lunch. In the evenings too, we never walked, we ran. And I used to beat all of them, even my male cousins, in the race. I used to reach first, way ahead of the others. Maybe that was how everything began.
Frankly, even in my wildest dreams, I never thought of becoming an athlete, I ran for the heck of it, the thrill was in beating my male cousins.
The turning point, perhaps, was my selection to the sub-district level athletic meet and, later on, for the district level meet from my school. I do not know how I got selected. I think the teachers asked some of us to run, and I got picked, I didn't join the trials voluntarily.
I still remember finishing the 200-meter race well ahead of all the others. On the other hand, in the 50-meter race, I was only fourth. By the time I started, others were nearing the finishing line. Perhaps I was destined to run only middle distance and not short distance. Even then, I had the stamina to run for a long time. But it was my father, who was working for the police department, who took keen interest in my sports career and saw to it that I participated in as many races I could.

Did you have facilities to practice in the place where you lived, as a child?

Well, we stayed in Thodupuzha, which was not a hilly area. Soon my father got transferred to a place called Kattappana, in Idukki district, which you know is a hilly area. But I never got a chance to run much, as we stayed close to our school. You won't believe, I never practiced in those days. I didn't know that we had to practice to run. Whenever I was asked to run, I ran and won a prize, that's all.
When I was in the seventh standard, I went for a district meet and won first prize in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and long jump events. Even when I was selected for the under 14-state meet, I did not practice, nobody told me to. I used to run very fast and my God, the next day I could not even get up from the bed. In fact, I collapsed immediately after the race. My legs felt like iron rods then.
But the excitement I had in winning the state meet was tremendous as I, an ordinary girl from a very ordinary school, defeated all those girls who came from the sports schools! All those girls from the various sports schools in Kerala were trained to run and I was a novice compared to them.

So you knew even then that you had the ability in you to run. Did you want to become a great athlete then?

I don't know. I never thought about all that. I just beat the others. But I had no ambition.

What was your ambition then?

Shiny Wilson None at all. (laughter) But I was happy when I was selected for the National athletic meet, happy when I won prizes. After I won the national under-14 events, my father felt I should be send to a sports school as there was no way I could practice and train staying in Kattappana. I joined the sports school in Kottayam when I was in 8th standard. And as the only girl who had gone for a national meet, I was respected by all.

Did you want to join a sports school, or was it only because of your father that you joined one?

I think I too wanted to join. Everybody said it was easy to get a job if we passed out from sports school.

Were you more interested in getting a job?

I don't know. I was too young to think about the re. Others said it was easy to get a job if we had the sports background. Getting a job was very difficult, so it was important.

How different was your life in the sports school?

It was very tough; very, very tough. We had to get up at 5.30 in the morning, draw water from the well and carry it to the bathroom. Can you believe there was only one toilet in the hostel for all the 35 girls? It was not exactly a hostel. It was a small house.
We stood in the queue to draw water, we again stood in the queue to go to the toilet and then we ran to the ground in queue, which was quite a distance away. That was why I said, life was pretty tough there. We trained for a couple of hours in the morning and by ten, we were in the regular school. Most of the days, we dozed off when the teachers lectured. In the evening also, we had to train after the school.

You mean you had to study the same syllabus like all the other children? Did they not reduce the subjects for the sports school students?

No. We had to study the same books and at the same time take training too. That was why we felt extremely tired to study. After a day's hard training, how could we keep our eyes open in class? I regularly missed classes as I got selected for various meets. When I was in the ninth standard itself, I broke the national record in the under-16 category. So, I was selected for the 1982 Asian Games camp.

What do you remember about the camp? Were you the youngest?

Yes, I was the youngest. Initially I had a lot of problems there, as I did not understand what the coaches said, since most of them were north Indians. Then, Valsamma's coach used to help me a lot. The training we had there was almost two, three times more arduous than what we had in school. Of course, in the camp we didn't have to study. So we slept till evening. And the food also was very good.
But I found it difficult to finish the cross-country races. We had to run nearly 20 kilometers. I used to stop after sometime, dead tired. But the coaches were very kind to me, as I was the youngest. Most of the days, I went back sitting at the back of the coach's bicycle!
After that, Usha, a Manipuri girl and I were selected for an international meet at Seoul and Milkha Singh was our manager. That was my first visit abroad and naturally I was thrilled. The first stop was at Hong Kong and we shopped a lot there. I still remember the tape recorder I bought from Hong Kong for Rs 300 -- at home we had a similar one for which we had paid Rs 1,300. Instead of buing a better one, like a fool, I bought the same one. More than anything, it was the price difference which shocked me.
Food was a big problem there at Seoul. I had to survive on fruits alone as I did not like the food provided by them. I remember one thing -- when the authorities took our saliva for testing, we did not know what it was for. After the test, they did not allow the Manipuri girl to participate. Only when we came back, did we come to know that she had failed the femininity test.
I came out fourth in the race but I was not disappointed at all. In fact, I was very happy that I could achieve that much.
One of the most memorable meets was the World University Meet at Canada in 1983. Do you know whom we met there? Charles and Diana! They came to our sports village, unannounced. As usual, one afternoon we were walking to the dining hall for our lunch and to our surprise, we saw them standing there.

Did you talk to them?

I didn't. Many others talked to them. We just stood there looking at them. Diana was so beautiful that nobody could take their eyes off her. Charles was not good-looking at all, when he stood next to her. We didn't have a camera with us, but many others took photographs with them. More than participating in the meet, meeting Diana was the most memorable moment of my life at that point.

Speaking of couples, when did your own love affair, with Wilson Cherian start?

Shiny Wilson I had seen and talked to Wilson in 1982, he was there in the Asian Games camp, he was the best swimmer in India then. I met him again several times in several camps and meets, but there was nothing between us then. After I came back from Olympics, I met him again there in the stadium. He talked to me for a long time, congratulated me and then I went home. After that, his friend told me that Wilson wanted to marry me. I said, please ask my parents.

Was marriage in your agenda then?

Wilson was a very quiet person and I liked him. So, I was not against the idea of marrying him. Our parents met and the marriage was fixed.

Did you get married soon?

Oh no. We got married only in '88. When our marriage was fixed, I was only 18 and Wilson was 19.

Was the engagement a distraction for you then?

No, not at all. See, both of us were in the sports field. We were together in some of the camps, but unlike many other youngsters, we never roamed about. One thing we had decided earlier itself was to concentrate on our careers. At the most, we would sit in the stadium and talk.
I actually set a new Asian track and field record in 800 meters in 1985, that is, after our engagement, and that record still stands. It was then that I set a goal for myself, for the first time, that I wanted to run 800 meters in less than two minutes. Many people, including foreigners told me there at the meet that I should aim for that.
China was reigning supreme then, so everybody was surprised to see an Indian girl setting a record there. Usha also had won gold in the short distance.

That was the golden period of Indian athletics. Since then, Kerala has not produced any athlete of class. Why is it that we do not see anyone who can be compared to you two?

Maybe because they have got too many facilities. We had to really work hard then. Maybe television is keeping the children inside, who knows?
Another thing I have noticed is, kids want to play only cricket these days. They are not interested in any game other than cricket. Take for example, my own daughter Shilpa. She is very much interested in swimming. After training, do you know what she asks for? Pepsi. And we buy Pepsi for her. After that, she wants to eat out.
In our time, after training, we had to run to the nearest tap to drink water, most of the time there wasn't even tap water available nearby. Today's kids have it easy, they don't have to walk to school, they won't even walk 100 meters to a bus stop.
I agree that kids live in better conditions in the European countries, but they learn sports in school. Since there are schools dedicated to sports, kids who have an interest in sports can excel. That is not the case here. Here, we parents are supposed to tap the talent and help the child train. And that means the child has to find motivation, but given the easy lifestyle, that is lacking.

You participated in the Los Angels Olympics in 1984. When you first started participating in athletics, you said you had no ambition at all and yet, there you were with the best athletes in the world. How was the experience?

Shiny Wilson with her daughter Great. Unforgettable. Do you remember, I became the first Indian woman to enter the semi-finals in the Olympics?
I was so excited. Any athlete would be excited to be just participating in the Olympics, and there I was in the semis! I couldn't believe it, myself. I was only eighteen then. Just before going to the Olympics, I had broken the national record set by Geeta Zutshi, and equalled the Asian record. But after the Olympics experience, I wanted to win a medal in the Asian games.

But you were very unlucky in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games...

Yes, that was one thing I will never forget. I was first in the heats, still I was only given the 8th track. My bad luck, or misfortune, started there itself. We are supposed to go in from our respective tracks, break the lanes, only after the first 100 meters. But just before completing that, I took a couple of steps inside. I did not disturb anyone, I did not get any advantage.
I finished the race first, with a lead of 20 meters, setting a new Asian Games record in the process. A Korean girl came second. I was thrilled to see my name -- Shiny Kurusinkal Abraham -- on the board.
Even now I relive those moments, those very short-lived moments. When I was in the dressing room, somebody came and told me that I was disqualified. I couldn't believe my ears. It was such a big shock to me, I think shock is a very mild word to use. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. I cried, and cried, throughout the night I cried.
They gave me an injection to calm me, help me sleep, but I couldn't sleep despite all that. Many people, including some ministers, and Wilson came and consoled me. I was inconsolable.
How could they do it? How could I accept the injustice? Even after finishing first, even after setting a new Asian Games record, I was not the winner.
That was the first medal which Korea, the host nation, won. I feel that had it been held later, I would not have had the problem. They wanted the first medal. Do you know, after one month, they declared that I did not disturb anyone, I did not get any advantage and the medal could have been awarded to me?

Did you get the medal back?

So far, no. Some people tell me that after some years, I may get the medal back. I do not know. Whatever it is, I lost it in '86. I was not lucky to hold the medal then.
Anyway, even though I did not sleep even for a moment at night, I ran the 400-meter race the next day and won the silver medal. We got gold in the relay too. Maybe I was not destined to win the individual gold, I tried to console myself, perhaps God did not want me to have everything. I could not take part in the next Asian Games as I had just delivered my daughter.

Not many athletes in India have made a comeback to athletics after childbirth. But your second innings was even better than the first one. Why did you decide to run again?

I had put on a lot of weight, 13 kilos, after the delivery. I was so fat, no one could recognize me then. When I said I wanted to run again, people mocked at me. Three months after the delivery, I was asked to inaugurate a football tournament and the next day a photograph of mine inaugurating the function appeared in the newspapers. Some people wrote, saying Shiny is best suited to inaugurate functions, not to run.
That infuriated me a lot. The desire to come back became intense, and I began practicing with new vigor. I ran with a few friends of mine and to my surprise, I found that I could run fast.
Then I wrote to the SAI director in Bangalore, that I wanted to train again. They gave a quarters and I went to stay there with my daughter.

Was Wilson very encouraging?

Very, very. He did not want me to stop. By then, he had taken the NIS coaching course and had become a swimming coach.

How do your stay in Bangalore go?

I stayed there for nine months. It was there that I got a coach called Hargovind Singh. It was his first assignment as a coach and initially, my bloated figure intimidated him. He made me train along with Bahadur Singh and some other male athletes.
It was tough, but I really worked hard because I had this burning desire to prove those who wrote that I was fit only to inaugurate football tournaments wrong. Within four months, I lost all that extra weight and I was selected to participate in the international permit meet held in Delhi.
Carl Lewis was there, remember? I came third in the 400 meters, behind two international athletes. I was selected as the best Indian athlete then. From there, I went to Kuala Lumpur to participate in the 1991 Asian Track and Field meet. There again, I got gold in the 400 meters, the only individual gold that India got in the meet. I also got silver in the 800 meters and gold in the relay.
Because of this performance, the Chinese journalists chose me as one of the ten best athletes in Asia.

Why did you decide to call it a day, seeing you were nowhere past your prime?

I have been in this field for the last 18 years. So, I had to stop one day. It is always better to retire when you are at the top. I am 33 years old now. I did not want young girls beating me. More than that, I was neglecting my daughter. When she was very young, she was with me in all the training camps. Once she started going to school, she came here to our home in Madras, while I would be away. Wilson used to bring her to the camps I was at, if it was nearby, during the weekends. She always went back crying. I felt very bad then.
When I was in a camp in Patiala, I could not see her for months together. I wanted to retire after the SAF Games itself, where I ran 800 meters under two minutes. But when Jayalalitha (then T N chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram) gave me a car and many other incentives, I thought I would continue for one more year.
So, the Atlanta Olympics became my target. I hoped to reach the finals there, too. Unfortunately I had a leg injury then.

The Padmashree came along at the right time, didn't it? How did you feel on getting it?

Shiny Wilson Three days before the announcement, somebody called me and asked whether I would accept the award. I think they announce the name only if you are willing to accept it. I was very, very happy. They had asked for my biodata sometimes back too. I was doubly happy because I was receiving the award from a Malayali President. Quite a few Malayalis had won the award this year, like Malayala Manorama editor K M Mathew, actor Mamootty, etc.

Did you talk to the President?

He was such a nice person, he talked to all of us in Malayalam. I am from Thodupuzha, which is very near the President's village. He introduced me to many people, saying, she is from my village. It was very sweet of him to say so. He was such a simple man that I didn't feel I was talking to the President of India. You rarely see such simplicity in public life.
My daughter only wanted to meet Sonia Gandhi. Earlier, we were told that they would not allow small children inside. She was so disappointed and angry that she told me, 'Mama, don't accept this Padmashree award. Why should you go to an award function where they will not let your own daughter inside?' We wrote several letters to several people requesting that Shilpa be permitted to see me accepting the award. Nothing happened.
But they allowed her inside for the rehearsal. I made a request once again. This time they relented, and she was very happy. I think she was the happiest when she met Sonia Gandhi. It seems Sonia Gandhi told her to run and be like her mother. Advani also spoke to her. He asked me a lot of questions about sports.

How do you feel when you look back? Any regrets?

There is only one regret in my life. That I lost my Asian Games medal. Throughout my life, that will remain in my mind as a sad spot. But God has been very, very kind to me. I am happy that I could achieve this much.

Mail Prem Panicker