Jinson’s golden run

Athletics

Jinson Johnson (328) tackles the Asian Games 1500M field.

The wide smile on his face belied the fact that Jinson Johnson had just finished second in a race that he was expected to win. It was the Asian Games and it was the final of the 800 metres. Jinson was the season’s leading runner in the event and he had every reason to sulk after having seen the gold slip out of his hands and land in the lap of compatriot Manjit Singh.

But Jinson smiled, revealing the mindset of a man at peace with himself. At any time, it is hard to find Jinson morose or grumpy. The tall man with a bearded face almost always sports a warm, welcoming smile.

At the GBK Stadium in Jakarta that day, Jinson was genuinely happy for Manjit, whose splendid sprint down the straight had pushed him to silver position. Two days later though, Jinson would have his moment in the sun. Learning from the mistakes he made in the two-lap race, the Indian champion collared the 1500m in terrific fashion. His victory was a rare one -- it was 56 years ago that an Indian had last won the event at the Asian Games. 

“My entire season was focused towards the Asian Games and it was the culmination of all the hard work I had put in all these years. Feels happy that it has paid off now,” says the 27-year-old. 

Despite being one of the continent’s leading middle distance runners, silver and bronze medals in top-level contests had dotted Jinson’s path till that magical night in Jakarta. He had won gold medals in the continent but those came at the lower rungs of the Asian Grand Prix. In a sense, it was a breakthrough moment for the man from Chakkittapara in Kerala’s Kozhikode district.

“People talk about the 800 metres disappointment. I would tell them I was not disappointed at all. I didn’t do badly and just because Manjit won the gold, there is no reason for me to feel disappointed. I was happy with the silver but others, who expected the gold from me because I was the national record holder, felt disappointed,” he says.

Johnson assuaged those feelings when he won the 1500m gold, and his awareness of its significance made it all the more special. “After the 800m, I went through the race and identified the mistakes. I felt I had not done well in finishing and when I took the start in the 1500m, I was determined to improve on that. The Asian Games is a big competition and all the big names are there. All I wanted to do was to perform well and win a medal. I had won silver and bronze at Asian Championships but this was tougher and winning the gold makes it really special,” he said.

A late starter, Jinson began serious training in athletics only in his pre-university days. But his talent was such that he made swift strides, through the college ranks and into the army fold. After joining the Artillery Centre in Hyderabad in 2009, he flowered under Mohammed Kunhi.

A silver in the 800M in the 2015 Asian Championships and a hat-trick of gold medals in that year’s Asian Grand Prix meets marked Jinson as a talent made for the long road. A big step forward came the next year when he qualified for the Rio Olympic Games in 1:45.98 at Bengaluru. For a few moments that evening at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, coaches and officials thought that the big one had fallen at long last.

Sriram Singh’s national record of 1:45.77, set at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, had challenged all comers for 42 years. The oldest record in the Indian books barely survived that day but the race ensured that the spotlight was firmly on Jinson at Rio.

“Though no one expected a medal from me, they thought I would be able to break the national record in Rio. But I could run only 1:47.27 there. It was a rough race and there were some pushing and shoving,” said Jinson, who went out in the first round itself.

Determined

His inexperience at the global level showed but that race only made him more determined. But at the Asian Championships in Bhubaneshwar last year, Jinson had only a bronze to show for his efforts in the 800 metres. Joining the National camp under senior coach J S Bhatia in October last year, Jinson then gave renewed focus to the 1500, an event that had helped his endurance in the 800m.

“Our work for the Asian Games really started then. And competitions this year showed I was very much on track. Victory at the Asian Games test event in Jakarta was the first step. Then came the Commonwealth Games where I was able to break Bahadur Prasad’s 23-year-old mark in the 1500m with a fifth-place finish,” said Jinson.

The Commonwealth Games, indeed, was a confidence booster. Timing 3:37.86 in a field featuring classy runners from Africa helped him to learn and improve in the metric mile. The moment he was waiting for arrived a couple of months later. In the humid environs of Guwahati, Jinson finally ran the race that would help him rub shoulders with the legendary Sriram Singh.

“The record was on my mind and I was happy that I could finally break it, having come close to it two years ago,” said Jinson, who timed 1:45.65. “In fact, everything has gone according to plan this season, I was able to break two national records and also win two medals in Asian Games.” After the Asian Games gold, Jinson had another special moment when he met with Sriram Singh in the VIP area of the venue.

“It was nice to have met him for the first time. He motivated me, urged me to work harder and do even better in the future.”

As he prepares to wind up the long season — “I started in February,” he says — Jinson has his eyes firmly trained on the future. “I will run both the 800 and 1500 in the coming season but the larger goal is to do well in the 1500 and work towards the 2020 Olympics,” he says.

With the Asian Championships in the calendar next year, you can expect more stirring runs from the lanky Junior Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army.  And win or lose, a smile will remain part of the package.

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