Albeit it is used more often than required, the phrase ‘how you finish a race is more important than how you start’ is, for a change, perfectly appropriate for middle-distance runners.
For Jinson Johnson – the national record holder in 1500m running – this phrase also epitomises his athletic career.
Albeit he won his third Asian Games medal today, by securing a bronze medal in men's 1500m with a timing of 3:39.74, Jinson's career did not have the best of starts. Not because he was at fault, but owing to circumstances.
"I come from a tiny village in Kerala, called Chakkittapara. Sports and running have always been my passion, but hailing from a village, I lacked both opportunities and direction,” the 32-year-old recalled, whilst talking about his initial days in athletics during a conversation with The Quint before his campaign in Hangzhou.
A Sedate Start
Jinson’s run – that of his life, in the figurative sense – started when he was in fourth standard. Yet, for six years, he could hardly make any impression. He explains why.
There were government sports hostels in my district, where athletes trained throughout the year. On the contrary, I was training just before the competitions. Besides that, those athletes had professional coaches, while I was at the mercy of the PT instructors my school had, who lacked professional know-how.Jinson Johnson
Jinson was aware of his prowess, and so were two others – Kulachal Johnson, his father who used to work as a real estate contractor, and his mother, Shailaja Johnson. Despite progress being negligible initially, the Johnsons weren’t deterred.
“I have always had the support of my family. But, although I had the talent, I was not being able to compete with those athletes who trained year-round and had every facility. Just being talented does not make you a successful athlete. Koi kitna bhi bada athlete ho, coaching aur facilities ke bina kaise compete karega? (Irrespective of how good an athlete is, how can he compete without coaching and facilities?)’ Jinson asks, with candour evident from his tone.
The First Turning Point
Jinson’s story would have been restricted to the exiguous realms of his village, had it not been for KM Peter. A former athlete-turned-bank employee saw the youngster, all of seventeen at the time, and decided to take him under his wing.
Though it had already been years since I started running, I consider that my career started only when I met Peter sir. He was the first to guide me. Under his coaching, I transitioned from being a district-level athlete to a state-level athlete very quickly. I trained in his camp for only six months, but it made me understand what a proper training regime is, and why it is so important.Jinson Johnson
The Second Turning Point
The foundation had been established, and between Peter’s camp to Baselius College’s training ground, Jinson was progressing rapidly. There was, however, another turning point yet to arrive – that of his selection in the Indian Army.
“I decided to join Army when I turned 18. I was always passionate about the Armed Forces, but besides that, I also wanted to have a secured job and a stable income, to be very honest with you. I was selected in 2009, and it proved to be a major turning point. They provided me with all the necessary facilities I needed – tracks, gyms, coaching, and everything else,” Jinson says, explaining his rationale, and how it changed his life.
The Asian Games gold medallist further explains how the Army is helping athletes, using his current scenario as an example.
Indian Army has been supporting sports for a long time. Milkha Singh se lekar Neeraj Chopra tak, sab Army ke hi hai (from Milkha Singh to Neeraj Chopra, many athletes are from the Indian Army). The best aspect is that if any of their athletes are training for a competition, they will never enforce Army-related duties on them. I get exempted from duties whenever I have camps, so that I can focus solely on my training.Jinson Johnson
Indeed, the move turned out to be career-defining. Struggling for eminence even in the district-level events till a few years ago, Jinson won his first national medal in 2012.
The first Asian Athletics Championships medal arrived in 2015, followed by three Asian Grand Prix gold medals in the same year. He represented India in the Olympics a year later, and then in the 2018 Asian Games, he won two medals, whilst also setting a new national record in the same year, at the Commonwealth Games.
Two Consecutive Setbacks
It seemed that now he had started his sprint, nothing would stop Jinson. Except, there were impediments, and not one, but a few.
I was in great rhythm, but unfortunately, COVID-19 came at the worst possible time and stunted my progress. To make matters even worse, I tested positive for the virus with high symptoms in April 2021 – just three months before the Olympics qualification event. To qualify for the Olympics, you need to be at your best, but I was still very weak.Jinson Johnson
For a runner, regaining form in the thirties is considered extremely difficult. Jinson had to do it twice.
A year after recovering from the virus, the athlete won a bronze medal in the Federation Cup, and it seemed that he was on the right track for recording the perfect comeback in the Asian Games. But, an untimely Achilles tendon injury forced him to embark on the dreaded journey, all over again.
“During this phase, I got immense support from the Reliance Foundation. They provided me with a senior physiotherapist, Ronak Hosabettu, and also with a coach, Ajith Markose, under whom I trained in Reliance’s endurance camp in Ooty,” he said.
The Dream Is Still Alive
The second comeback bid was successful too, with the runner winning a gold medal at the National Inter State Senior Athletics Championships, before a 2023 Asian Games bronze.
So, what's left? The Paris Olympics, as Jinson mentions.
I want to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. It will be my last attempt at that competition. I am regaining my rhythm and the results are in my favour, which is encouraging. I don’t have much time, but I am ready to do all it takes to improve my timing. Main ye to nahin keh sakta ki abhi apne peak par hoon, but haan, umeed hai (I can’t say that I’m at my peak performance now, but I have hope).Jinson Johnson
And, at 32, where does the ‘umeed’ stem from? As he would soon explain, he is following the ‘rukna mana hai’ (cessation is prohibited) mantra, as he always has been.
“I never dreamt of winning even a national medal, let alone winning an Asian Games medal. My only competition has been against myself, and my only aim has been to improve my performance. I am taking one day at a time, and focusing on improving with each day, without ever stopping,” Jinson concludes.