G Lakshmanan was wearing his new Nike trainers when he arrived on the race track of the National Institute of Sport ahead of the men's 5000m race in the Federation Cup on Thursday. The new sneakers were a gift from his sister Suriya - although he doesn't celebrate his birthday until Monday. "She's always bought and presented my gift in advance," Lakshmanan says.
That's not the only annual tradition the siblings maintain. For the third year in a row, the brother and sister pair each won the 5000m event at the Federation Cup. And as ever, the two cheered each other onwards. "During her race, I was standing at the 300m mark and was cheering for her, and during my race, she was standing at the same spot cheering for me," says Lakshmanan.
The Federation Cup, one of several national level tournaments in India, isn't the most prestigious tournament for an international athlete. Lakshmanan has never been beaten in the last four years in India and has won silver and bronze medals at the Asian Championships. However, coming early in the season as it did, the two's timings on Thursday were well below their personal bests. Their timings -- Lakshmanan clocked 14:02.90 while Suriya was timed at 15:54.78 - were nowhere near the qualifying standards for the world championships. But Lakshmanan still rates the prize he won on Patiala highly. "I have won many gold medals but it is always good to win it along with my sister," he says.
The two have always been close. They both learned the nuances of long distance running in the Youth Sports Club in the village of Kavinadu near the town of Puddukottai in Tamil Nadu, from their father and coach S Loganathan. They now train together at the national camp in Cunoor. If Lakshmanan wears shoes bought by his sister, she holds her gold medal aloft in a finger that wears a gold ring bought by him. It's almost impossible to think of a time when the two were not inseparable.
Seeing how close they are today it's difficult to imagine that their relationship is not by blood but by accident - literally so. When he was six Lakshmanan's father was killed in an accident; the boy was adopted by a neighbour, Loganathan - Suriya's father. "I have two fathers - my birth father Govindan and Loganathan sir," says Lakshmanan. Loganathan didn't have a son, so he adopted the youngster who lived a few houses away. "As far as I remember he was my father. And Suriya has been my sister," says Lakshmanan.
As a respected coach Loganathan was expected to train his daughter to be a runner. Lakshmanan though, wasn't prodded. "I was never interested in running initially and my father never forced me. But when I turned fourteen, I grew interested. Because Suriya was always at the track, I too wanted to go," he says.
Despite his relatively late start, Lakshmanan proved to be a natural. "My father didn't have a lot of money but he always made sure I got a good diet and shoes," Lakshmanan, now a naib Subedar in the Army, says.
While it's unusual to have two siblings in the national camp together, Suriya and Lakshmanan say it helps them. "We are very close to each other. I go to her whenever I have a problem," says Lakshmanan.
On the other hand, Suriya admits her brother can be a bit overprotective. "There are times when he gets upset. Especially when I don't finish my food, he makes sure I finish my vegetables," she says. But the attention comes with benefits. "He knows what I am thinking. There are times during the national camp when I would be really craving a particular kind of food, and he would get it for me in the evening on his own," she says.
Training away from family can be an isolating experience for athletes. This is something the two don't have to worry about. "A lot of the campers have told me that when they see us fight and joke with each other they tell me how much they miss their own brothers. A lot of them are lonely so it makes me appreciate how special it is to have my brother in the national camp with me," says Suriya.
On Thursday even as they celebrated yet another set of gold medals, the siblings say they are still hoping for another special occasion. "When we compete at the Asian Championships in July, I really hope we can both win a medal," says Suriya.