Arunjith and Preeja revel

S. Arunjith of Kerala (centre) dashes to the gold medal in the 200m.-R. RAGU S. Arunjith of Kerala (centre) dashes to the gold medal in the 200m.

The two Kerala athletes emerged the star-performers, claiming a fine sprint-double and a golden treble respectively. A report by A. Vinod.

A young man with an insatiable hunger for success and a pint-sized woman, who was always seen smiling, took the spotlight in athletics at the 33rd National Games in Guwahati.

S. Arunjith and Preeja Sreedharan, both hailing from Kerala, were the star performers in the five-day event, claiming a fine sprint-double and a golden treble respectively.

The quality of competition in Guwahati would have been better had the likes of Anju Bobby George, Manjit Kaur, Pinky Paramanik, Soma Biswas, Chitra K. Soman, O. P. Jaisha and K. M. Binu, to name a few, been present.

However, their absence was somewhat made up by these two Kerala athletes who hold a lot of promise.

Preeja Sreedharan leading the bunch in the 5000m. She won the gold in the event.-R. RAGU

Not yet out of his teens, Arunjith is already aiming high. The boy from the quaint little town of Kollam — he still trains on a dusty cinder track at the SAI Training Centre under his coach, Udayakumar — is dreaming of gaining a place in the Indian team for the 17th Asian Championship to be held in Beirut, Lebanon, in late July.

Had the sprint relay team received the nod to make the trip to Doha, Arunjith, a second-year degree student of the Fathima Matha National College, would have realised his dream of representing the country last year itself.

The youngster, however, is not disappointed. "Personally, I feel that my best is still to come. The trip to Doha would have given me some excellent exposure and the chance to compete with the best of Asia. But I do not think of it anymore as I would like to perform to my best in the coming season."

Udayakumar agrees with Arunjith's viewpoint. The hard-working coach, who has moulded the careers of triple jumper M. Renjith, Asian junior gold medallist K. J. Clinton, middle-distance runner R. Rajeev and up and coming long jumper P. K. Priya, has big plans for Arunjith.

"We have set a target of going under 21 seconds in the 200m in the coming season. And then, I have already started training him for the 400m in which he is capable of doing a sub-47s as of now. I would love Arunjith to develop as a good 400m runner as he has limitations to become a sprinter capable of winning a medal at the Asian-level."

The limitation that Udayakumar was referring to is the poor start that Arunjith often gets into, especially in the 100m. This was very much in evidence during the Games at the Indira Gandhi Stadium, Sarasujai, where he had to quell the challenges of Jagadish Basak (Assam) and Vishal Saxena (Uttar Pradesh) in the 100m final.

The Kerala lad was the last one to leave the blocks and was in the third place till the closing stages of the race. But even under these circumstances, what helped him to win the gold, at 10.66s, was his good speed and never-say-die spirit.

In the 200m, his pet event, it was virtually a cakewalk for Arunjith, who strode down the bend quite admirably and placed himself in front of the pack much before the runners hit the homestretch. In the end, the initial burst was also of help to the youngster in achieving a career-best time of 21.32s, that too in pouring rain. It was Arunjith's hunger for success that helped Kerala to take the gold in the 400m relay, ahead of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Alex Thomas (Services) touched a personal best and came up with a meet record of 16.45m in triple jump. Sunil Kumar and Kashinath Aswale (both from Jharkhand) beat the existing Games records in the 5000m and 10000m respectively. Hari Shankar Roy (Bengal), the National record holder, set a meet mark in high jump. L. Benning of Services also hogged the limelight with a meet record in marathon.

Among the women, it was Preeja Sreedharan all the way. The 25-year-old, hailing from Rajakaad in Idukki district, had remained consistent all through the last season and had broken the National record in the 10000m thrice. She was the only athlete to finish with an individual golden treble in Guwahati. It was a tough call for Preeja on the opening day. She had to compete in the 1500m and the 10000m within a short span of three hours.

But then, the Kerala athlete proved that she was made of sterner stuff as she took up the challenge and dashed the hopes of her rivals, scoring convincing wins in both the events. And on the final day, the Palakkad-based Railway employee returned to beat Madhuri Gurnule and Preeti L. Rao in the 5000m, as she had done in the 25-lapper on the opening day.

In fact Preeja was dismissed as a no-hoper in her younger days. So her rise to the top has to be credited to the hard work she has put in, in the last couple of years under Belarus coach Nikolai Snesarev.

Like Arunjith, Preeja is also confident of her future. "I am hopeful of carrying on at least through the next couple of years, maybe until 2010 when Delhi will be hosting the Commonwealth Games. And by then, I would like to be the best long distance runner that India has ever produced."

Preeja's commendable show apart, the competitions in the section also saw the seasoned V. S. Surekha (Tamil Nadu) vaulting to a new height of 3.85m. L. Deepamla Devi, though from Manipur, represented Assam in the Games. She created a new mark in the 20000m walk and veteran J. J. Shobha recorded a double by winning the long jump and heptathlon titles. She won the latter after being engaged in a close battle with Bengal's Susmita Singha Roy.

But nonetheless, the meet belonged to Arunjith and Preeja. Interestingly, it was the good show from this duo which helped Kerala to once again stamp its superiority. The state topped the medals tally with a haul of 12 golds, eight silvers and six bronzes, ahead of Services (5-6-5), Tamil Nadu (5-4-6) and Andhra Pradesh (5-2-5).