Sunday, July 27, 2008

The long and the short of it

(A series on childhood memories)

Thanks to his father’s encouragement, T.C. Yohannan, the former Asian Games long jump gold medallist, devoted his life to sports

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, T.C. Yohannan was going to school with a few friends at Irumpanagad in Kollam district. Near the entrance, there was a narrow canal. A friend asked the eleven-year-old Yohannan whether he would be able to jump across it. The prize: a glass of lime juice.

Yohannan took up the challenge, walked some distance away, turned round and sprinted. At the last moment, he jumped, but it was not good enough. He landed in the water, much to the amusement of his friends. His uniform all wet, Yohannan had to return home.

“When my father asked me what had happened, I told him the truth,” says Yohannan, the 1974 Asian Games long jump gold medallist. “He put his hands on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry.’”

Then his father took Yohannan to the same spot, one kilometre from home, and asked him to try again. Yohannan jumped and fell into the water again. “It was only on the fourth attempt that I was able to cross the canal,” he says. “It was an inspirational moment for me! I have never forgotten my father’s show of support.”

Thereafter, Yohannan took part in numerous sporting events in school and came first many times. “A notice would be sent to all the classes listing the achievements of the students in various categories and I would feel happy when my name would be called out,” says Yohannan. “It was also an incentive to carry on doing well.”

He also had teachers who encouraged him. “Mathaikutty Sir, who taught physical education, helped us a lot,” says Yohannan. “To prepare for the annual school sports meet, we would have daily training in the evenings at school and Sir would provide refreshments.” The headmaster, Varghese Sir, also encouraged the students to excel in sports.

Yohannan was the son of a farmer. But times were difficult, since the family was large: there were seven sons in total. “I was aware that there was not much money in the house,” he says. “So, I would never ask anything from my parents.”

Instead, whenever he needed money to spend, like, during the temple festival, he would borrow it from his friends. “I would buy sweets, balloons and cashew nuts,” he says.

By the time he was twelve years old, his dream had crystallised: he wanted to excel in sports. But he needed a pair of running shoes and did not know how to get it.

However, one day, when nobody was at home, Yohannan wandered about and saw that there were several large brass pots, which were used to keep grain, in a storage room. He took an empty one and sold it in the village. “I got Rs 15 for it,” he says. “With that money, I was able to buy the running shoes.”

Yohannan would go, every morning, for practice at a long jump pit, near a clump of coconut trees. “As soon as the elders of the village saw me, they would pass comments like, ‘See how he is wasting his time’, ‘he should try to concentrate on his studies, instead he is jumping,’” says Yohannan.

“I would pretend that I had not heard the comments. At that time, in the 1960s, people felt that sports were a waste of time.”

From childhood, Yohannan was brave and focused about his sporting career, but he would get nervous whenever his family went out in the late evenings, and he was the only one at home.

“I would go outside, climb a tree in the courtyard, talk to myself, and wait till the family returned,” he says, with a sheepish smile.

So, who was the one who influenced him the most: his father or mother? “It was my father,” he says. “He was a simple man, who, once when he made a decision, would stick to it. He was also hard-working, focused, sincere, and dedicated. I inherited these traits from him.”

His mother, on the other hand, was loving and kind. “I have these qualities, too,” he says.

He remembers a conversation he once had with her. “When I got married, I told my mother that I would be having only two children,” says Yohannan, the youngest among the seven children. “She laughed and said, ‘If your father and I had thought that way, how would you have won an Asian Games gold medal?’"

Nevertheless, Yohannan, 61, who is married to Annie, has only two children: sons, Tisvy, who lives in Australia, and the Chennai-based Tinu, the first Keralite to play Test cricket for India.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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