Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Golden Sunset


P S John, one of the oldest athletes in Kerala, at 87, looks back at his career and talks about his future plans

Illustration by Amit Bandre

By Shevlin Sebastian

P S John strides confidently onto the track at the World Masters Athletic championships at Lyon, France. He is wearing a green singlet and shorts. The word, ‘India’ is emblazoned on the front and the back. Astonishingly, there is only one other competitor in the 80m hurdles. He is a bespectacled Japanese, who is wearing a white cap.

They stand on the starting line. The starter fires the pistol. John is off immediately. Soon, he secures an easy lead. While the Japanese is trotting, John is running, striding over the eight hurdles and then sprinting to the finish.

The crowd claps as John raises his hands in triumph. He embraces his rival. Both are clearly out of breath, as they stand together posing for the photographers. Later, John raises the Indian flag, a happy smile on his face.

Thereafter, John wins a gold in the 200m hurdles and a bronze in the long jump. Owing to his spectacular performance, John is adjudged the ‘Best Master Athlete 2015’ by the Asia Masters Athletics organisation.

What is astonishing about his achievements is that John was 85 years old then. And he has been winning medals consistently over the decades at national and international competitions. His total haul is 138 medals (91 gold, 33 silver and 14 bronze).

At his home in Kanjirapally, John, 87, breaks into a smile as he remembers his achievements. “It is hard work and dedication that enabled me to win,” he says.

On most days, he can be seen at the athletics track of the St. Dominic's College, Kanjirapally. “The facilities are good,” says John. “The youngsters help me set up the hurdles.”

He trains for a couple of hours. “When you do training, you feel joyful,” says John. “No matter how difficult life is, on the track I forget everything.”

Asked how he got interested in athletics, John says that it was his joining the National Cadet Corps (first batch of the Travancore Battalion) in 1948 that made all the difference. At Thiruvananthapuram, he saw a group of Army men doing the hurdles. “I was immediately attracted to the sport,” he says. “Slowly, I began training with them. They taught me the right techniques. I began to practise regularly. Soon, I began winning medals.”

Asked why Indians don't do well in international athletic competitions, John says, “Youngsters don't practice enough. Most sportsmen start training a few months before an international meet. That will not yield results. You have to practise throughout the year, over many years, before you can do well.”

In his daily life, John is a farmer. He grows rubber, cocoa, bananas, jackfruit and organic vegetables. “I get pure milk straight from the cow,” says John. “There is a peaceful feeling when you work in Nature. Walking around enables me to keep fit. My aim is not to be bedridden for a single day.”

Before farming, John had a 33-year-long career as a teacher of Malayalam at the Gracey Memorial High School in Parathode, Kottayam. “I actually studied Sanskrit, but ended up teaching Malayalam,” says this father of two. While son Roy, an electronics engineer, runs his own business in Kochi, daughter Sindhu is a French teacher at Salem.

Meanwhile, when asked about his future plans, John says, “My aim is to take part in the 90-year category at an international event. Such a category does not exist. But if God allows me to reach that age, in good health, I will be the first to compete in this category.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode, and Thiruvananthapuram)

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