Commonwealth Games 2018: After finding solace in Indian Army, Jinson Johnson looks to make Kerala's sports-village Chakkittapara proud
The best thing probably about the upcoming Gold Coast Commonwealth Games is that we get to discover the success stories of so many talented athletes from all over the country.
One such athlete who has hopes of doing wonders for his country is army man Jinson Johnson from Kerala. From the small village of Chakkittapara to Rio, Johnson has seen it all and is all set to take yet another stride in order to bring laurels to his nation.
Most recently, Jinson shot into the limelight in the cricket-frenzied nation after he qualified for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which is set to take place next month in Gold Coast, Australia.
While he is now one of India's top prospects for a medal in 1,500m hurdles, Jinson did not always have a smooth run in athletics.
He warms up to the conversation as he begins narrating how he articulated his ardent love for sports right from his school days at St.George's High School in Kulathuvayal.
"I would participate in a lot of sports competitions as a child. I was very interested in sports from a young age. But I wouldn't win regularly because I didn't have the proper training. I would directly participate in competitions."
Lacking refinement of his raw skills, the earliest instance of training came Johnson's way when he was all of 11-years-old. Recalling his early days, he says, "I hail from the village of Chakkittapara in Kerala.
And in my village, I had a neighbour-friend, Jitesh who harboured my interested in sports and together we started going on runs early in the morning." The efforts began to show results as he soon achieved success by finishing second in the long jump and flat race(200m) in his school competition.
However, the path to glory has not been a cakewalk for the spirited athlete. Several disappointments came knocking when he couldn't get a medal in the District level or a place in the school team in the 7th standard.
"When I was in the 10th standard, I managed to come first in 800m, 1500m and 5000m categories in hurdles and made my way into the school team," says Jinson.
He reflects that his failure to win medals at the district level was primarily due to the absence of a formal coach.
"In the district level, the competition really broadened and there were people from SAI who had proper training and it became difficult to beat them."
During that phase, when Jinson was in his 11th standard, he gathered all the attention of a bank employee and sports enthusiast, KM Peters, who took notice of Jinson's admirable physique and skills and decided to coach him.
"I started practising day and night from then"d at the Kerala Sports Council Hostel at Kottayam and soon he came 1st in the district level and participating for the first time at the State level came 2nd in the 1500m hurdles.
Sadly, he was denied entry into the national team right away despite having qualified. "There was another athlete at the U-18 stage who had a better score," he said.
However, Jinson didn't let that setback disturb him much for he soon came first in the 800m and 1500m hurdles at the state level and barged into the national team, winning several schools and district level accolades en route.
While Jinson admits that it was not difficult for him to choose a career in sports, it was only after he joined the Army, that he really started to improve at the competitive level.
"I improved incredibly after joining the Army. When I was recruited, my personal best was 4minutes and it quickly became 3.39 under 1 year, which was my personal best," he said. "I got a lot of facilities and support once I joined the army too."
Chakkittapara: A village that breeds athletes
Jinson may be from a small village, but the hurdles runner believes that it is only because of the place where he hails from, that he has been able to progress so far.
"There is so much talent in our village. But most of them don't get the exposure. There are no infrastructure or funds to encourage raw talent," he said. "If we get the facilities then we can improve."
This is indeed a pressing problem in the context of a vast country like India where talent is spread all over. Most don't flourish and surface because they don't get the right training and exposure.
"There is a huge sports culture in my village," his voice soaring with pride, he adds. "In the Commonwealth Games team there another woman, Neena Pinto for long jump, who is also from my village."
From 800m to 1500m: Almost double the effort
Heading into the Commonwealth Games, Jinson would take loads of international experience along with him, having taken part in the Rio Olympics, and the 2015 Asian Championships. A silver medal in the latter is something that Jinson will proudly remember, as it got him a promotion in the Army.
Now, just about a week before heading to Australia for the mega event, Jinson has kept the humble target of bettering his own record, something that he believes can help him get a medal, rather than keep more ambitious targets.
"I have to put in maximum effort to get my personal best. If I am performing my level best and timing, then medals are going to come automatically," he said. "It's more important that I concentrate on my performance than worry about the medals.
"If you improve your game then medals will come. You don't have to worry about it."
One aspect that Jinson has had to tackle is transitioning between 800m and 1500m hurdles. While the core skills required for the two different events are still similar, there is the obvious adjustment that the 27-year-old has to make.
However, one unique aspect about his CWG sojourn is that this is the first time that Jinson will be participating in the 1500m event on the international stage.
"I always did 1500m but I have never competed at the international level. I did 800m and I have a lot of experience in it. But for the CWG, I made the best timing for the 1500m race during the qualifiers, so I have to stick to this for now," he said.
"The coach has changed several things for my training for the 1500m which differs from the 800m routine," he comments.
Johnson qualified for the 800 metres event at the 2016 Summer Olympics by clocking his personal best time of 1:45.98 at Bangalore in July 2016, meeting the Olympics qualification standard of 1:46.00. It is the third fastest time by an Indian in 800m race.
All praises for fellow army man Rathore
All said and done, however, Jinson is one athlete who is very happy with how the government is helping the sportspersons of the country, be it regarding finances, facilities, or technical support.
One person the army man seems particularly grateful to is Athens Olympics silver medallist and current Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
"See, this is something that all of us athletes always wanted. One of us heading the sports administration. Mr Rathore has been there and done that," said Jinson. "He knows what difficulties the athletes face, and he is taking steps to help us all out."
With the backing of both the army and the government behind him, Jinson is an athlete who seems completely focused on improving himself in the future. With the Commonwealth Games being the most immediate event, all eyes will be on the 27-year-old. Can he bring back a medal? Oly time will tell.