(As told to Susan Ninan)
I remember my first jump. I was around 10 or 12 years old then and my friend who used to walk back home with me from school challenged me one day to jump across a stream. He promised to buy me a glass of lemonade if I succeeded.
That afternoon I went back home with soaking wet trousers and books. Though I tried to dodge my father's sight, he obviously caught me. I narrated the story of the failed bet, which ended with me falling into the stream. He listened closely and the next morning he asked my mother to make me a glass of lemonade and then wrapping his arms around my shoulders he smiled and said, "Let's go." I found myself standing before the same stream I'd fallen into a day ago. But this time my father was beside me. He asked me to attempt a jump. I was hesitant but he patted me on my back and reassured, "This is nothing. You can do it." We didn't return home until after many attempts I finally leaped over to the other side.
That was my beginning in sport. Growing up in the small village of Maranadu, Kollam district in Kerala, I had never imagined the path my life would take. I began participating in inter-school meets and later moved to Bhillai to pursue a mechanical engineering course. In 1970, I set a national mark of 7.60m in Patiala and soon after that won my first international medal in both long jump and triple jump in Singapore. Sport took me to lands I had only read about in books -- Tokyo, Hiroshima, Seoul, Philippines and Kobe City among others, but 1974 was the most unforgettable year of my life.
The big toe bone of my take-off foot was a painful worry during the Asian Games. It had developed a crack because of the tremendous pressure applied on it on the take-off board. After my first jump in Tehran, I had to be administered painkiller injections and managed 7.80m in my second attempt. Between my third and fifth jumps, both of which were fouls, came my best and Asian record attempt of 8.07m. It won me a gold medal and that record stood in India for three decades. I returned to a rousing reception across all districts of Kerala I visited, and TELCO -- whom I was employed with then -- felicitated me.
I used the then little-practiced 'hang' technique for my jumps. For this flight, there's a lot of upward spring during take-off, the hip is thrown forward and arms and legs are extended to a maximum distance. Once the apex of the jump is reached, both legs are snapped forward into a landing position. This kind of jump produces a lower angular momentum.
My spikes were made by Roshan Shoes, a local manufacturer in Patiala and the nails at the bottom would bend during take-off. In fact, most of my spikes would tear within a couple of jumps because of the explosive force exerted during take-off. Even the bigger and more popular international brands didn't last for too many jumps in my case.
My greatest regret remains not having won an Olympic medal. Had it not been for my toe, I might have stood a good chance in 1976. The bronze medal went for a distance of 8.02m that year.
Two years later, I tore my hamstring at NIS Patiala after my knee sunk into the new sand pit and my career came to an abrupt end.
When my sons were growing up, I got a sand pit made in front of our house. My secret wish was that one of them would one day break my record. Though I tried to get my older son to pursue sport, he showed little aptitude and dropped out early. I was a touch luckier with my younger son, Tinu. He sustained an interest in long jump until the day South Africa captain Hansie Cronje visited his school. Tinu was assigned to garland him. That meeting was the starting point of his love for cricket. He was called to bowl at the nets and later went on to become the first Kerala Ranji player to be picked in the national side. He made history in a path he chose and I never tried to hold him back.
Today it's been 44 years to my Asian Games gold but I'll never forget that night. I lay awake on my bed until morning. My foot was terribly swollen and the pain was unbearable but I couldn't stop smiling.