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From eating mud to Olympic participation: The remarkable journey of India's O P Jaisha

The 32-year-old battled extreme poverty to become India's most acclaimed female middle and long distance runner.

OP Jaisha broke her own national marathon record four times

16 years ago, a young girl forced her parents to attend a sports festival in Kalpetta, a small town in Northern Kerala. She would go on to participate in the 800m race without any shoes and win the event with close to a 100-metre lead.

Today, that girl is a certified star. O P Jaisha’s name has become synonymous with Indian athletics as she has consistently broken her own national middle and long distance running records on the road to Rio.

Last year, Jaisha created headlines by breaking her own national marathon record that was set 19 years ago. Now on her way to the 2016 Rio Olympics, her story is one that proves India’s sporting talent base is expanding against all the odds.

There were days we had to eat mud to survive: Jaisha

When she was just five years old, Jaisha’s father, a daily wage labourer, was left bed-ridden due to a bus accident. Her mother, unable to see her husband in pain, slowly slipped into depression. With no earning member in the family, they were pushed into extreme poverty.

Jaisha said, “The cattle that we had passed away randomly, hence we had no source of income. There were days when I would eat mud on a regular basis just to survive. Rice water was a luxury.”

Her mother then took a loan from a bank, mortgaging their residential land. Jaisha added. “We were four of us, and she could’ve asked us to work as maids, but she never did. She bought cows with the loan money.”

“I used to do a lot of running in my daily life, would go early morning to milk the cows, then walk one and a half km to deliver the milk at the society. After that another two kilometres, then again in the evening I used to run two kilometres back home,” Jaisha said.

Jaisha has now reconstructed the house in her village (Image source: Indian Express)

Unknowing to her, Jaisha’s frequent running at high altitudes (2,500m) gifted her the natural specialised training required to compete in long distances. This would see her become a bronze medallist (1,500m) at the 2014 Asian Games.

Jaisha herself admitted to this aspect, saying, “As I was progressing in my career, I realised how much that helped, especially with stamina retention. I also trained at Dharamshala, Eldoret, Ooty and Conoor which are also high altitude areas.”

The girl from Thrisellery was fortunate to attend the sports exhibition which got her state-wide acclaim. Jaisha said, “One of the local coaches named Girish saw me running at the event, after taking the winner's certificate, he told me that he would suggest my name to Assumption College in Changacherry. That particular college boasts of the strongest athletics facility in Kerala; that victory basically kick-started my athletics career.”

A major roadblock

Inability to pay the college fees was the first major obstacle; her mother was not able to afford her move from Thrisellery to Changacherry. However, Jaisha was determined and she left her house with just her clothes on and zero finances.

In an interview with Indian Express last year, she said, “Coach Menon Sir and Ninamma Madam treated me like their own daughter. I was provided moral support as well as the necessary kit and shoes for training. It was the first time in my life I received any sort of training and I was so grateful.

“I would have probably spent the rest of my life in my village selling milk. Our family would survive for a few days on the money two-three litres of milk fetched us in the market. When you have nothing to fall back on you must grab the opportunity that comes your way and put your heart and soul into athletics. I did just that at Assumption College,” she added.

Jaisha then went on to practise under Ninamma and Menon for the next two years. Her landmark performance came at the 2005 University Games, where she won gold in all three distances: 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m.

She was immediately sent to the National Camp, where she met Snesarev. An absolute disciplinarian, the Belarusian guided Jaisha to 2006 Asian Games success where she won bronze in the 5,000m.

However, Jaisha’s athletic career came to a screeching halt after that. She said, “During this phase of my career, I wasn’t as focused as I had to get all my sisters married. The prize money I received from the Asiad medal went into the marriage cost and paying off my loans. I also faced major injury issues at the time.”

Jaisha was dropped from the national squad in 2011

The 2010 Commonwealth Games saw Jaisha finish ninth, an all-time personal low for her. The lowest point of her career came in 2011, when she was excluded from the national camp despite winning bronze at the Asian Athletics Championship.

Targeting top eight finish at the Olympics: Jaisha

Her turnaround came a year later, when she met her to-be husband and athletics coach Gurmeet Singh. The duo crossed paths during their time at Khalsa College, Ludhiana.

In an interview, Gurmeet said, “I quit my Khalsa College job and travelled with Jaisha to the Sports Authority of India’s high altitude training centre in Dharamshala. I stayed outside the SAI centre and paid from my pocket for lodging. We were determined to prove that Jaisha could once again win a medal at the Asian Games. We spent nine months in Dharamshala and then slowly but surely Jaisha started regaining her form and strength.”

In 2014, Jaisha was recalled by Snesarev to the national squad. At 32, she showed the shades of determination and finesse of her previous self. She repaid Snesarev’s faith by winning bronze at the 2014 Asian Games in the 1,500m event.

Last year, she left the athletics community stunned after breaking Vally Satyabhama’s two-year marathon record of 2:38.2, by three and a half minutes in Beijing. Jaisha was thankful about Snesarev’s contribution to her career. She said, “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be able to break as many national records; I am what I am because of him.”

Now, the little girl from Thrisellery is all set to participate in her very first Olympics at the age of 32. She said, “I don’t think I’m going to medal, because Indian athletics doesn’t have that infrastructure and regular competition to think of an athletics medal. My goal is top 8; that would be a massive victory for me. Hope I can make India proud.”

Jaisha’s journey has been one full of hardship and struggle, yet she has reached the stage where she will be donning the Indian colours at the 2016 Olympics. From no shoes to Olympic participation, her journey truly celebrates the spirit of sport.

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