Five years ago, Jisna Mathew won her first medal of significance, a silver in the 400m at the Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Doha. Taking the gold in that under-18 meet was Bahrain’s Nigeria-born Salwa Eid Naser, the current world champion and the third fastest female quartermiler in history.
Naser’s gold came in 53.08s while Mathew, then only 16, clocked 53.84. The 22-year-old Bahraini, the current World No. 1, now has a stunning personal best of 48.14s which came at the Doha Worlds last October along with the gold medal and the Asian record.
For the last three years, Jisna has been closely watching the stunning rise of another athlete. It’s Hima Das, the 400m national record-holder, under-20 world champion and the Asian Games silver medallist from Assam.
Strange twists and turns
But Naser’s and Hima’s sporting lives have now taken some strange twists and turns.
The Athletics Integrity Unit handed out a provisional suspension to Naser in June for four ‘whereabouts failures’ which could probably see her missing next year’s Tokyo Olympics and in India, many are wondering whether Hima would be able to run the 400m in a major international meet again after suffering a mysterious back injury last year.
“Yes, I was very surprised by Naser’s progress,” said Jisna in a chat with Sportstar from the Usha School of Athletics at Kinalur in Kozhikode.
“But I wouldn’t be happy to see her missing competitions. Girls like Salwa could give me good competition.”
Jisna was also surprised by Hima’s quick and amazing progress.
“I had taken a long time and a lot of meets to progress, so when I saw her progress in about six to eight months in the 400m, I was shocked,” she said.
“When I saw her break the national record clocking 50.79s at the Jakarta Asian Games, I was wondering when she would go below 50s. She is a very strong runner.”
Just 21, Jisna has already been to the Olympics (2016, Rio), three World Championships (2015 Beijing, 2017 London and 2019 Doha) and had won the 400m gold at the last two Junior Asian Championships in Vietnam (2016) and Japan (2018). And she was a member of the Indian mixed relay team which finished seventh at the last Worlds and qualified for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Shortly after the Doha Worlds, Jisna was thrilled when World Athletics upgraded her 400m bronze medal in the 2017 Bhubaneswar Asian Championships to silver.
“When Nirmala (Sheoran, who won the 400m gold medal in Bhubaneswar) was banned for doping, I knew I would get the silver. I saw the change in the World Athletics site some six months ago,” said Jisna.
Strangely, despite having travelled far and wide, Jisna has not been able to improve on her personal best in the quartermile from 52.65s which came in May 2017 in New Delhi.
“I wanted to better that, but somehow I could not. But next year, I will surely do 51-plus,” said Jisna about her new target before the Olympics.
P. T. Usha, her famed coach, explained why Jisna had been stuck in a zone.
“After she clocked that time, the next year (2018) she had a problem of perennial hiccups. We were scared of giving her regular training, it was continuous and she lost two to three months with that,” she said.
“Last year, she did really well. In her first international competition in Almaty (Kazakhstan), she did 52.96s. After that she did not get enough quality individual races before the majors. But she had run well in the relay. If there had been some quality competition, she would have done better.”
Jisna was also under a lot of pressure before the 2018 Asian Games. She had to run a controversial trial in Jakarta to select the fourth runner in the 4x400m women’s relay team. V. K. Vismaya, virtually an unknown face a year earlier, pipped Jisna and grabbed the team ticket. Soniya Baishya and Vijayakumari were the others who were made to run, but strangely, Saritaben Gayakwad was kept away from the trial along with M. R. Poovamma.
Last year, Jisna pulled out from the Asian Championships in Doha as she felt there was a conspiracy to deny her a place in the 4x400m relay team once again. She had finished fifth in the Federation Cup, the qualification meet for the Asians, but with the fourth-placed Debashri Mazumdar omitted as she was not a national camper, Jisna should have been the automatic choice for the last berth in the relay team. But there was a last-minute change.
Having learnt some hard lessons, she is a very determined girl now.
“I want to become India No. 1. If I run 51-something, I know I can get the top spot. The chances are good... it will happen when we start having the meets,” said Jisna, the daughter of a farmer in Kannur, who landed at Usha’s academy in 2011 at the age of 12.
Virtually cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by mountains, Usha’s academy at Kinalur turned out to be an ideal location for training during the national lockdown forced by the coronavirus pandemic. The athletes went slow and maintained social distancing but there was not much of a break in training.
“We were training during the lockdown period, following protocol. And I was nicely coming into form,” said Jisna.
Half the team missing
Incidentally, a half of the Indian women’s relay team which won the 2018 Asiad gold is virtually missing now. While Hima, a good 200m runner earlier who finished fifth in the event in the under-18 World Championships in Kenya three years ago, is still not sure whether she would be able to run the 400m, Saritaben Gayakwad, another member of triumphant Jakarta Asiad women’s relay team, has mysteriously disappeared.
Jisna believes that Haryana’s Anjali Devi, who left the national camp and was later playing hide and seek with anti-doping officials last year, and Kerala’s V. K. Vismaya will be ones to push her.
With the coronavirus situation getting worse by the day, Jisna is not sure whether the Athletics Federation of India would be able to open the competition season as planned on September 12.
“It is always motivating for athletes to do competitions but I don’t know whether they will happen in these conditions. But we are practising well,” she said.
Lady long legs
Appearances are deceptive. If one had seen Jisna some five or six years ago, one wouldn’t have thought that she would go this far. She’s only 5’1” but the tallest in her family.
“But despite her short frame, Jisna is blessed with long legs which offer her a good stride length. I’m 5’7” but Jisna’s legs are almost as long as mine,” said Usha who was impressed with the young girl’s basic speed.
“That (basic speed) is the most important thing we see at the academy, and that is why we selected her.”
But Usha had to handle the young girl with a lot of care.
“Jisna, like (former Asian champion) Tintu Luka and Jessy Joseph, has a weak heart. So, we start slowly on them, monitor their pulse rate closely every day and then increase the pace systematically,” explained Usha.
And Jisna’s light frame meant that Usha had to go slow with weight training when it came to the little girl.
It did not take long for Jisna to make her mark and a few years later, she was among the world’s best juniors.
“Jisna is somebody who has come up gradually. The athletes who came after her appeared to be in a sort of hurry, they came with a big performance and then went away in a flash too. Jisna’s performance has been steady, she had won medals in Commonwealth Youth Games (Samoa, 2015, 400m silver), Junior Asians and was in the senior relay team at the Worlds. Now, it’s time for her to establish herself at the senior level,” said Usha.
“Tintu’s performance was also like that. She was trailing girls like Sinimol Paulose and began to overtake them once she came to the senior level, once she crossed 20. Jisna will also come like that.
“Considering her form this year, she should be running below 52s next year. The target is 51.2 but I think she will do something between 51.4 to 51.6 if everything goes well. She will also be trying to qualify for the Olympics in the individual 400m, the qualification time is 51.35.”
The road ahead certainly looks very interesting.
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