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|July 11, 1998||
The Rediff Interview/Shiny Wilson
The ace runner heads into the home stretch
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
Great. Unforgettable. Do you remember, I became the first Indian woman to enter the semi-finals in the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Padmashree came along at the right time, didn't it? How did you feel on getting it?
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.
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
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