Humble but gutsy

Preeja Sreedharan's profile has changed following her remarkable performance in the 2010 Asian Games. “Now people recognise me wherever I go. Most importantly, I am financially independent. But personally, if you ask me, I haven't changed. I am the same,” she says in a chat with K. Keerthivasan.

Modest to a fault, Preeja Sreedharan, 28, comes across as one who hasn't been affected by her popularity at all. Five feet tall and weighing about 50 kg, she looks a lot younger than her age.

Preeja, who lost her father when she was only five, had to struggle for the best part of her early life. However, thanks to her brother Pradeep and mother Ramini, Preeja was able to carry on with her passion — athletics.

Preeja proved her mettle in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, where she won the gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5,000. The athlete, however, tasted defeat in the ill-timed National Games in Ranchi (Jharkhand). She lost in both the 10,000m and 5,000m to her practice partner Kavita Raut (Maharashtra) and had to settle for silver medals. But Preeja wasn't disappointed. “I am not upset as this is off-season,” she said in an interview with Sportstar.

Question: You credit your success in the international level to the Belarus coach, Nikolai Snesarev…

Answer: He is very strict and makes us work hard, but he is also very supportive. We don't focus on weight training. In fact, Snesarev insists that we do no weight training. We used to run long distances in Udhagamandalam and at the SAI Centre in Bangalore. It was hard but it was worth the effort. In fact, a fortnight before the start of the 2010 Asian Games, we went to Guangzhou. We took part in practice race and received excellent training. Our timing was good. The coach was very happy with our training and that gave us hope that we can do well in the Asian Games.

You come from a poor background. How difficult was it to pursue athletics?

My father died of heart-attack when I was only five. It was my mother Ramini Sreedharan who did the odd jobs and guided me. My brother Pradeep has been a huge inspiration and it is because of him that I am where I am today. He had to stop his studies and take up work to fund my education and running career. He started working as a carpenter to make ends meet. At one stage — sometime in 2006 — I even contemplated quitting athletics due to financial constraints. But my mother and brother were against it; they said ‘God has given you the skill, keep running'.

You run both the 5,000m and 10,000m. Which is tougher?

The 10,000 is my main event; the 5,000 is not my speciality. Both are equally tough. The more you practice, the better you get.

Athletics has been tainted by doping allegations. What is your suggestion to make it cleaner?

My coach (Snesarev) is insistent that we eat a lot of fruits and vegetables (boiled). They are enough. You don't need illegal stimulants to boost your endurance and performance. My advice to youngsters is to work hard. Listen to your coach, know your limitations and work within them. And God's blessings is a must.

Athletes from Kerala generally tend to do well. Is there any special reason for that?

The State Government supports the athletes financially. Without its support, it will be very difficult for us to survive. The coaches at the school and college level are strict and they drill discipline into the athletes. Of course, self-motivation is necessary. But I think the system is more or less good in Kerala.

Tell us about your Beijing Olympics performance…

It was a memorable Olympics for me. Two months prior to the Games, we went to London for training. Our coach was happy with the timings we clocked during training. Considering that the field at the Beijing Olympics was tough, I ran a good race. Looking back, where I made a mistake was running at others' pace and not at my own pace. So towards the final stretch, I got tired. I didn't know these things at that time as it was my first Olympics. I finished 25th in the 10,000m (32:34.64s).

Do you think finishing fifth in the Delhi Commonwealth Games was a disappointment, especially since a lot was expected of you?

Certainly not. A week before the CWG, I had fever and throat pain. It got worse by the time the competition was on. In fact, the coach didn't want me to run, but I was adamant. For 15 rounds, I ran well, but midway I had breathing problems and could finish only fifth. After the Games, I was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore where I was administered drips.

What is your greatest ambition?

I am looking forward to winning a medal in the London Olympics. I am training hard and I am sure my hard work will pay off.

Has the Asian Games medals changed your profile in any way?

Yes, of course. Now people recognise me wherever I go. Most importantly, I am financially independent. But personally, if you ask me, I haven't changed. I am the same.