Jinson Johnson: A big medal is always a huge motivation

“To be honest, my biggest achievement in terms of participation was at the Rio Olympics. But in terms of performance, it definitely was the Asian Games because it gave me recognition,” says athlete Jinson Johnson.

“Nothing can ever be taken for granted and if I make the mistake of taking it easy, thinking I have the experience, it will be disastrous,” says Johnson.   -  Special Arrangement

Jinson Johnson has no explanation for why so many of India’s track stars come from Kerala. He does realise, though, that most of them are women. “I think it is just the fact that there have always been seniors who have achieved big to look up to,” he says.

The 28-year old is now well on his way to being one himself. Way below par at the Federation Cup, only his first competition of the season, Johnson still managed to qualify for the Asian Championships in the 1,500m despite a niggling calf injury. But it was his clear superiority over the rest of the Indian field, despite not pushing himself to the limit, that stood out. It also highlighted his numero uno position in the event.

“I wanted to be there at the Grand Prix also, but the injury forced me to sit out. That would have given a chance to get into better rhythm here. It’s just the start of the season across the world. Right now I have no idea about timings, fitness or even what would be an ideal race for me in terms of competition. But now that it has started, things will only improve from here on,” says Johnson, speaking to Sportstar after the Federation Cup.

For those wondering, an ideal race over middle and long distances is not just about going all out and being the fastest all the time. A lot depends not only on the athlete’s own tactical acumen and pacing of himself, but also the pace being set by others in the competition. That makes it important for every runner to optimise his performance differently.

Jinson Johnson crosses the finish line to win the men’s 1500m event at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia in August 2018.   -  PTI

Having a group of runners at the same level and training together makes it crucial and is an advantage. “Manjit Singh, Sajeesh Joseph, Ajay Saroj and Mohd. Afsal, the entire group, trains together and everyone is within striking distance. My best is around 1:45 (in 800m), they are around 1:46. In 1,500m also, there is only about 2-3 seconds difference. I never go into a race assured of winning it, that is not possible. Which is good because it keeps you alert and aware of the competition,” Johnson says.

The current national record holder in both 800m and 1,500m, Johnson has been on track for more than a decade, gradually climbing up the ranks. But it was his performance at the Commonwealth Games last year that finally made people sit up and take note of the lanky army guy. Johnson smashed one of the longest standing national records, clinching fifth spot in the 1,500m with a timing of 3:37.86 to break past Bahadur Prasad’s 23-year-old mark. If anyone thought it was a one-off, Johnson was quick to dispel the notion two months later, racing past the oldest standing and seemingly unbreakable record in Indian athletics — Sriram Singh’s 42-year-old mark in the 800m.

For the common man, though, medals matter more than records. And that spotlight finally fell on Johnson at the Jakarta Asian Games when he won gold in 1,500m and silver in 800m. “To be honest, my biggest achievement in terms of participation was at the Rio Olympics. But in terms of performance, it definitely was the Asian Games because it gave me recognition. A big medal is always a huge motivation and it also drives you to better yourself further,” Johnson admits.

None of it was on the mind of a 16-year-old from Chakkittapara village when he was first spotted by K. M. Peter at a district meet in Kozhikode. All he knew was that he could run fast — and longer the distance on track, the faster he could get. “As a kid, 200m used to be long distance and I used to do reasonably well, compared to shorter distances like 50-60m. Once I reached Standard VIII, the longest distance became 600m and I would do well in it instead of 100 or 200m. I realised I was better suited for slightly longer distances, it was ideal for my strength and stamina,” Johnson smiles.

Johnson trained with Peter, a bank employee who runs an academy, for a year before moving to Baselius College and coach George Emmanuel. That one year, however, was important for Johnson, he admits. “That was the first time I received any kind of professional training. It also helped me win my first national-level medal at the School Games,” he says.

A year on into his college education, Johnson was recruited into the army as an 18-year old and that made a big difference. The army’s sports infrastructure and facilities meant Johnson had it relatively easy and not struggle for training opportunities. He won the junior nationals 800m as a 19-year old in 2010. He claimed the bronze medal at the senior nationals in 2012 as a trainee at the Army Artillery Centre in Hyderabad before moving to the elite Army Sports Institute under coach Muhammed Kunhi. This was the time he actually developed and won his first international medal, a silver at the Asian Championships and then he moved to the Sports Authority of India and Dronacharya awardee J. S. Bhatia in 2017.

“I know most of our athletes struggle initially before getting support. Thankfully, I had little because within a year or two of serious running I joined the army and soon after became a national camper also, so there was SAI and AFI (Athletics Federation of India) too. But international sports is not easy, especially athletics. Whatever extra support you can get is only helpful. There are 45 countries at the Asian Championships; 205 at the Olympics. You can imagine the level of competition, the number of competitors. To get better than all of them, to win a medal at that level, no support is too much. We get foreign exposure and training but it can never be enough,” he admits.

President Ram Nath Kovind presents the Arjuna Award to Naib Subedar Jinson Johnson in New Delhi in September 2018.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

On the road since 2007, the one-month break he got after the Asian Games was the longest he had spent at home since starting out professionally. He last went in December 2017 for a few days before getting into the grind for the Asian Games. “We miss family, festivals, everything. Almost the whole year we are in camps only. But a sportsman’s career span is very limited and this is a very high fitness event.

“Nothing can ever be taken for granted and if I make the mistake of taking it easy, thinking I have the experience, it will be disastrous. Experience is very important in a tactical race like 800 or 1,500 but fitness is even more. If I get lazy now, fitness will go for a toss and experience will be useless,” he explains.

With the International Association of Athletics Federations making qualifications tougher for World Championships and the Olympics, the road ahead for Indian athletes has become a lot tougher. Almost all of them would have to improve not just their personal best performances but, in many cases, set new national records. Johnson is more than two seconds off the Olympic qualification time in 1,500m but close enough in the 800, even though he plans to concentrate only on the longer event now.

“It is tough, I will have to do a lot better than my personal best to even qualify for the Olympics but my target is now that only. I know a lot of athletes feel the qualification marks are very tough, but I understand where the IAAF is coming from. Like I said, there are around 205 countries participating and they can only have 40-45 participants in an event to organise properly. The interesting thing is, the qualification mark is far higher than actual competition performances — it is set at 3:35 for Tokyo while the gold at Rio came in 3:50! But anything is possible — I have managed to do all that had not been done so far in Indian athletics, so I am confident I can continue doing it,” he hopes.

The first step towards that would be taken next month in Doha. But the distance Johnson has covered from Chakkattipara so far has already firmly put him in the legion of Kerala’s track stars.