Monday, August 17, 2015

A Smooth Swim

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Molly Chacko talks about life with the former swimming champion Sebastian Xavier

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by P. Ravikumar

One day, in 1994, champion athlete Shiny Wilson approached her colleague, Molly Chacko, at a training camp in Bangalore, and said, “There is a marriage proposal for you.”

From whom?” said Molly.

Sebastian Xavier,” she replied.

Molly said, "I will have to inform my parents about it."

Molly and Sebastian had been friends for a while. “We would speak to each other, because there were so many Malayalis in the training camps at Delhi and Bangalore,” she says. While Sebastian was a swimmer, Molly was an athlete.

After a while, Sebastian's sister, Valsamma, and her husband, Aprem, came to see Molly in Ooty where she was doing high-altitude training. Later, both sets of parents met and finalised the tie-up.

The marriage took place at the St. George Church at Edathua on December 26, 1994. What Molly remembers of that day were the many colleagues who came. They included celebrities like PT Usha and her husband Sreenivasan, Shiny and Wilson Cherian, Padmini Thomas, Sports Minister Pandalam Sudhakaran, Kuttanad MLA, K.C. Joseph, and Molly's mentor, the Dronacharya Award-winning coach KP Thomas.

For their honeymoon, the couple went to Ooty. "I remember we went boating on the lake," says Molly. "Sebastian enjoyed the paddling. It was a new experience for him.”

Today, both are working in the Indian Railways and are settled in Chennai. While Sebastian is a Sports Officer, Molly is an office superintendent.

Asked to list his plus points, Molly says, “Sebastian is a simple person and easily adjusts to different situations. He also has a tendency to help people.”

Sometime ago, when Sebastian’s best friend, an inspector, George Joseph, fell from a train, and died, he was the first to arrive on the scene. Thereafter, he ensured that the post-mortem was done quickly so that the body could be returned to the family for burial.

Among his negative traits is a tendency to get irritated if tasks take long to be completed. “I believe this is because he had been a 50m swimmer, so he likes things to be done quickly,” says Molly, with a smile.

When asked whether she has seen any of Sebastian's races, Molly says, “The first time I saw Sebastian race was at the Bangalore Nationals in September, 1996.” With her two-year-old daughter in tow, Molly had gone from Chennai to see this 50m race. At that time, Sebastian was the national 50m and 100m champion and he was in good form. Before going to Bangalore, Sebastian asked Molly to pray at the St. Antony’s church near their house, so that he could perform better.

The prayers helped. Sebastian set a national record of 22.89 seconds for the 50m which stood for 14 years. In an earlier nationals, at Goa, in 1994, Sebastian won an unprecedented eight gold medals and set six national records. “You just take a breath and Sebastian was across the pool,” says Molly. “That was how fast he was.”

In the end, Sebastian won 66 gold medals at national meets, 36 Asian level medals, and represented India in two Asian Games, several South Asian Games, as well as the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. As for Molly, she is the current 3000m national record holder, which she set during the 1994 Asian Games at Hiroshima. She is also a former national record holder in the 1500m.

Meanwhile, Sebastian’s success came at a physical price. He lost all his hair. “That was because he spent long hours in the pool,” says Molly. “Sebastian rarely used a swimming cap while training. So the exposure to chlorine damaged the hair. His teeth as well as his skin also got damaged.”

But Sebastian has accepted this stoically. Like in any sport, there are low and high moments. And the high point for Molly was when Sebastian won the Arjuna Award in 2000. “Sebastian had to wait a long time to get the award,” says Molly. “He was on the short-list three times. There was a lot of politics.”

She accompanied him to Delhi for the awards function at Rashtrapati Bhavan. For the ceremony, Sebastian wore a brown coat, a maroon tie, white shirt and cream trousers. “As he went to collect the award I felt a great joy within me,” says Molly. “The Arjuna Award is the culmination of a good sports career in India. President KR Narayanan gave the award and said, 'Congrats, well done'. KM Beenamol also won that year.”

Interestingly, although Sebastian has won so many honours, because of swimming, he rarely gets into the pool these days. “He likes to play badminton, either in the morning or the evening,” says Molly. “He keeps in touch with swimming by accompanying the Railways team to competitions all over India.”

Back home, he gives company to daughter Elizabeth, 19, and son Mark, 15. “He is not strict, but at the same time, he is not soft,” says Molly. “He likes to play games with them. Sebastian has the heart of a child. When we have free time, we like to go for films. The last film we saw was 'Premam', and we all liked it.”

Finally when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Molly says, “You should have faith in your spouse. My parents instilled a deep belief in God. So I pray a lot. You have to learn to adjust to all sorts of situations. It is not smooth flowing all the time.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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