Her best was in Guangzhou

“I decided to quit because I felt there was nothing much for me to achieve,” says Preeja Sreedharan, one of India’s finest long-distance runners. By P. K. Ajith Kumar.

As she grew up in a hilly village called Rajakkad in Idukki (central Kerala), Preeja Sreedharan could hardly afford to think of sport. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother had to do menial jobs to support the family.

Preeja’s only dream then was to get a job so that she could make life easier for her family. When she began to run on the advice of the physical education teacher at her school, P. R. Ranendran, she thought achievements in sport would help her get a job.

Her medals did earn her a job with the Southern Railway in Palakkad, that too in the office of her idol P. T. Usha. Preeja soon found out sport was not just about getting jobs; it could take one places. She went on to win medals for India and by the time she quit the international scene after the Asian Games in Incheon recently, Preeja had become one of the finest long-distance runners of India.

She did not win any medals in her last international event, but Preeja said she is not going to lose much sleep over it. “Yes, it would have been great if I had won a medal from my last meet, but I was troubled by poor health in Incheon. I had chest infection, allergy and fever,” she told Sportstar over telephone from Palakkad, shortly after arriving from South Korea. “I decided to quit because I felt there was nothing much for me to achieve. I was hoping to do well in Incheon, as I had been doing extremely well at the training sessions.”

The 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games brought the best out of the athlete with a charming smile. She had won the gold in both the 5000m and 10000m races, with National records to boot in the events. It was quite a remarkable performance.

“I was determined to do well in Guangzhou after the disappointment at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi,” Preeja said. “It was with great expectations that I had gone to Delhi; I wanted to triumph in front of the big crowds there. But I could finish only seventh in the 10000m; a severe cold and cough let me down. My coach Nikolai Snesarev, who has been the biggest influence in my career, consoled me. He knew that I would come back from that setback.”

Preeja did. She ran the races of her life in Guangzhou.

“I wasn’t expecting gold medals there,” she said. “I would have been happy with just one medal. It was incredible to win two gold medals, that too with National records, at the Asian Games.” Preeja promptly dedicated her victory to her mother and brother, Pradeep, who had stopped studying and started doing menial jobs to ensure that his little sister could have a career in sport. “Even now, I believe the greatest achievement in my life is that I could provide a comfortable living for my family,” she said. “Without their sacrifices, I would not have become an athlete.”

Preeja is also grateful to her coaches, Snesarev, Ranendran and Thankachan Mathew, who trained her while she was studying at Alphonsa College, Pala. She also paid tribute to her strongest rival, Kavita Raut.

“We may have been fierce competitors on the track, but we are also very good friends,” she said. “I have benefited a lot by running with her. I think we have contributed greatly to each other. I was fortunate that I had a rival like her; I knew she was breathing down my neck all the time. She never gave me the time to be complacent.”

Preeja intends to take a break, but wants to be involved with the sport. “I would be running for Kerala at the National Games early next year,” she said. “I had begun here and would also want to end by running for my State. Then, I want to help young athletes coming from deprived backgrounds. I will try to get them whatever help that would keep them running.”

Preeja does know a thing or two about running under difficult circumstances.