Saturday, March 21, 2009

Showing some Mercy


Displaying immense talent in her school days, former athlete Mercy Kuttan had to overcome many setbacks, before she could make her mark

By Shevlin Sebastian

“By the time I reached Class 10 at the Thaliparamba Seethi Sahib school at Kannur, I had already come first in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and the long jump at the district level,” says Mercy Kuttan. Soon, she was selected to represent Kerala in the national school championships.

At that time, Mercy was staying 15 kms from the school. “I had to walk 12 kms and then take a bus,” she says. “It was quite tiring.” To allow her to spend more time in training, an accommodative school management allowed her to stay free at the boarding.

At the championships held at Thiruvananthapuram in 1978, Mercy broke the long jump record. “It stayed in my name for 19 years,” she says. This was the first time the school had a national record holder in their rolls.

“I was given a big welcome by the teachers and the students when I returned to school,” she says. “It was a turning point for me because I realised I could be a successful athlete.”

Mercy then joined the sports hostel at Palakkad and came under the tutelage of coach A.K. Kutty. “There were ten students, among whom was M.D. Valsamma, (later an Asian Games gold medalist).

In 1980, Mercy was asked to participate in the selection camp for the Indian team for the Moscow Olympics.

At the camp, she met Murali Kuttan, a 400m runner. Says Murali: “It was love at first sight for me.” After a while Murali expressed his feelings, but Mercy rejected it outright. “At that time I was focused on my career and had no thoughts of romance,” she says. But Murali persisted, and played a few mind games.

He avoided taking meals in the canteen at the same time as Mercy. Murali’s fellow athletes, like Udaya Prabhu, told Mercy her suitor had stopped eating because he was depressed. Slowly, Mercy fell in love and they became a couple.

This development angered the chief coach J.S. Saini. “He said I should concentrate on my career, instead of thinking of marriage,” she says. Mercy was only 18, while Murali was 26, and his career was coming to an end.

By not listening to her coach, Mercy had to pay a high price: she was not selected to represent India at the Olympics, even though she was the best in the long jump in India. “I would have got an automatic selection,” she says. “I was very upset.”

To mollify her, Mercy was allowed to go to Moscow as a member of a government-sponsored youth delegation. “I watched the events as a spectator,” she says. “It was a painful experience.”

But an undeterred Mercy began training hard once again and there were good results straightaway. “I got a bronze in the long jump in the Asian Track and Field championships at Tokyo,” she says. “My confidence grew double-fold.” After the championships, Mercy and Murali tied the knot on August 17, 1981.

In 1981, she began training with Murali at the Tate Steel athletics facilities in Jamshedpur, where they were employed.

At the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, Mercy was aiming for the gold medal. She did a jump of 6.48m. The stadium erupted in applause. A track official held up the white flag, signifying a clean jump. However, a few moments later, the chief judge, Bhatt, raised the red flag.

“I don’t blame Bhatt,” says Mercy. “He was doing his job. I did cross the line, but it was difficult to see the mark with the naked eye.” Later, the Chinese girl, Liao Wenfen won, with a leap of 6.41m, while Mercy, with 6.26m, took the silver.

In 1983, Mercy took part in the inaugural World Athletics championships at Helsinki, but failed to make a mark.

By the time 1984 rolled in, Mercy realised the Olympic qualifying mark for the long jump was difficult to achieve. So, she and Murali decided to start a family.

Two years after her delivery on April 4, 1985, the thought arose in Mercy that she should try to fulfill her dream of taking part in an Olympic Games. “When I expressed my desire to Murali, he was very supportive,” she says. Both of them felt Mercy stood a better chance if she shifted to the 400m.

“We would take the baby in a pram for the training sessions,” says Mercy. “It was a difficult adjustment, to shift from one event to another so late in one’s career. I had to work very hard.”

But within ten months, she won her first 400m event at the Kanpur nationals, when she defeated a start-studded group of runners, which included Ashwini Nachappa, Shiny Wilson, Vandana Shanbhag and Vandana Rao. She won 400m competitions regularly and was able to achieve her life’s dream: she was selected for the Indian team for the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul.

“It was at Seoul that I realised, with a sense of shock, the gulf in standards between us and world class athletes,” she says. Mercy Kuttan reached the second round of the 400m, before she was eliminated.

“But I am an Olympian,” says Mercy, who won the Arjuna Award in 1989. “Wherever I go, people always refer to me as Olympian Mercy Kuttan. Coming from a small village in Kannur, I consider this as a huge achievement.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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