Adarsh Murlidharan Sinimol Nair was a bit more tired than usual when he crossed the finish line at the end of the men’s individual triathlon event at the National Games on Sunday.
The Services triathlete stormed to gold at the IIT Gandhinagar track, completing the 750m swim, 20km bike ride and 5km run in a time of 1:01:13. Nair was more than three minutes clear of silver medallist Vishwanath Yadav (1:04:34), but the race hadn’t been completely to plan.
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“The triathlon is always a tough race. It’s actually classified as one of the hardest events in sports,” says Nair. “There are three very separate events (the race comprises a swimming segment, a cycling portion and a running leg), and you have to work every muscle in your body and push all the way through to the end. The National Games race was a little more challenging because I think there was something unusual about the race layout because of which we ended up cycling an extra 500m and running 400m more than we normally would have,” he says.
All that is forgotten as he steps on the podium with a big smile on his face. Medal ceremony done, Nair takes out his mobile phone and, with an even bigger smile, makes a call. It is to his maternal grandmother, and it is what he always does.
Nair shares he has always been close to his grandmother, Krishnamma. She is his Ammamma. “She is my everything. Everything I am is because of her,” he says.
While Nair is a strapping 24-year-old Army man now, confident in his position as the best men’s triathlete in the country, this wasn’t always the case. He remembers when he was a terrified little child with a younger brother and an uncertain future.
Nair recalls his mother had been sick for many years as he grew up in Pirappancode village, near the city of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. She struggled with a heart condition she developed after the birth of his younger brother. She died when Nair was 12 years old. Nair does not shy away from sharing that his father, an alcoholic, had abandoned the family years earlier. “At that time, I did not know what to do and who would take care of us,” he recalls.
It was Krishnamma, then 63 years old, who stood up. “My Ammamma single-handedly raised me and my brother. She never complained. She just said she would take care of us, and she did,” he says.
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Krishnamma didn’t believe in taking favours. “She always told me, 'Work hard on your own.' When she had the two of us to take care of, she started working as a labourer on construction sites. She never asked us to help her. She just did it herself. At that time, we were just happy to be eating every day. My brother and I took it for granted that Ammamma would take care of us. It never struck us what she was doing for us,” Nair says.
In Class 8, Nair won a scholarship to a sports hostel near his village. While he enjoyed running, his sports scholarship was for swimming. With meals and boarding provided though, he did not hesitate to join the hostel. He proved to be a talented swimmer but not a standout. He has a participation certificate in the 1500m freestyle event from the 2016 junior nationals as a testimonial to his early days as a swimmer.
After school, he took part in a sports trial for the Indian Army. He had applied as a swimmer, but was not picked. Six months later, he tried again. In his second sports trial, he was advised to try out for triathlon. This is where he heard about the sport for the first time.
“In the trial, along with the swimming, they asked me to run. I had never trained as a runner, but I had a certain amount of fitness because of my swimming background. Because the army was starting a triathlon programme, they picked me,” says Nair, now a Havildar with the Bombay Engineer Group, also popularly known as Bombay Sappers.
Nair's early days under Subedar Sunil Bise, the chief coach of the Army’s triathlon programme, were tough. “I had never learned cycling, and the triathlon, generally, is a hard race. The first time I competed, I came last. I was so exhausted that I thought I would die,” he laughs.
Nair got better as training progressed. He went on to win a gold medal at the 2019 South Asian Games, and this year, he qualified for the Indian team that competed at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. He finished as the country’s best performer in Birmingham, completing his event in a time of 1:00:38 to come 30th in a field of 46 participants.
Being the best Indian is not satisfactory enough for Nair. “Our preparation was good. In an army trial before the Commonwealth Games, I had clocked a time of 56 minutes. But at the Commonwealth Games, I was wearing swimming tights one size too big. Instead of being watertight, it ended up weighing me down. But it was a learning experience. I got to compete with the (Tokyo) Olympics silver and bronze medallists (Alex Yee of England and Hayden Wilde of New Zealand). I know just how much difference there is between them and me," he says. Incidentally, Yee won gold in Birmingham, and Wilde took silver.
After the National Games, Nair is looking to take the next step in his development as a triathlete. “They (Yee and Wilde) are better than us in all three events. We have to improve in all of them. But I completely believe we Indians can catch them. My goal is to compete well at the Asian Games and win a medal. Whenever I train, I enjoy myself because I can see I’m getting better,” he says.
Nair believes his prospects at the Asian Games are better. The triathlon at the Asian Games, like the Olympics, is a full triathlon – double the distance of the Commonwealth and National Games events, which are sprint triathlons. “My better event is the full distance one. I have more endurance. I’m not very strong in the sprint, but the longer the race, the better I get,” he says.
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While his event is exhausting, Nair knows better than to complain. “I am just playing sports. If I am a little bit tired, I don’t think I will ever be as tired as my Ammamma would have been when she was working at those construction sites.”
Nair's triathlon career is on track, and his brother has joined the Indian Navy. Now, it's a very different headspace for the brothers. Nair often tries to convince his Ammamma to take some rest. She won’t hear of it though. “I’ve tried so many times to tell her to stay home and relax, but she always wants to do something or the other. Even now, in her seventies, she likes to work though she doesn’t have to. We have been able only to convince her to do light work, but she wants to stay active,” he says.
Nair relishes sharing that his grandmother is happiest when she speaks to him over the phone. “I call her up every day and tell her how my day has been. She doesn’t know what the triathlon is but is always excited to hear what I am doing or how my training is going,” he says. “I am always happy to win. But what is even better is when I talk to my Ammamma on the phone after a race. I am usually really happy when I stand on the podium. But when I call my grandmother, it feels really nice to hear how her mood also changes. She gets really happy and that makes my happiness grow even more.”