Mary D'Souza (bronze, 200m; silver, 4x100m relay)
1951, New Delhi: Winner of the first two medals by an Indian woman at the Asian Games
The first Asian Games were supposed to be held in 1950. But from what I remember, they had to be postponed by a year because there was some delay in getting the National Stadium in New Delhi ready for the competition. I had first heard about the Games at the 1950 National Championships, where we were told that the first two from every event would represent India. As you can imagine, I was very excited to represent India.
For one, I had just graduated from high school and was a PT teacher at St Joseph's Convent in Mumbai. I was just 20 years old and did not know what to expect from the competition. I had no previous international exposure. But we were going to be representing the country, so that was special.
Athletics wasn't even in the picture when I was growing up! I went to the all-girls St Joseph's Convent School in Bandra. We had no sports. We had no grounds or facilities. At our one and only school sports day we had simple games like marble and spoon race, gunny sack race, frog race, book balancing, jumble shoe race and other silly made-up games.
Because I came from a large family of 12 children, all the girls played with the boys in the municipal ground. The only game I played was hockey because I didn't know about track until later.
I began purely by chance. I had a cousin who saw me play field hockey. He said I had terrific speed and I should run track. He entered me into a race and I took part. I had no coach, so I just mimicked what everyone else was doing. I was unknown but I did well enough that I was motivated to enter other races. Of course, I still didn't have a place to practise so I used to jump over the compound in the evenings at St Andrew's boys' school and train on their track at night. There was a watchman at the front gate and he had no idea that I was on the grounds.
Very shortly I was on the Bombay team at the Nationals. I was the youngest on the Bombay relay team that won the nationals and I also won the 200m, because of which I was selected to play for India.
It was only after that I got formal coaching under Jai Pardiwalla because he was coaching the other relay girls at the Brabourne Stadium.
In Delhi [1951 Asian Games], my first race was the 200m. Since I had no experience I listened to my friends Lavy Pinto and Bunny Fernandes, who told me to conserve my strength in the first 100m and speed up after the bend. Of course, by then two Japanese athletes were far ahead of me. If I had gone all out from the start I would have won because I wasn't even tired at the finish line.
After that I did better with the relay team, which won a silver. Our entire team was from Bombay. It included my cousin Pat Mendonca, Banoo Guzdar, Roshan Mistry and myself. We had practised the baton exchange very thoroughly but the Japanese had trained harder and they had a smoother baton exchange.
We didn't draw a lot of attention after the Asian Games. We were felicitated by President Rajendra Prasad and later we were also invited for tea by Prime Minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. I didn't get any prize money like athletes today do but I was given an autographed picture of Nehru and an autograph by Lady Mountbatten. There was nothing for us after the Games either. There was no reception after winning in New Delhi nor back home. My mother did not even make me my favourite chicken xacuti when I returned home!
I still remember after I was selected to compete in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, I was told the government didn't have the money to send me. I couldn't ask my family -- with 11 other children to worry about -- to send me to Helsinki. But then my friend Vincy D'Mello heard about my woes and he and other friends organized a dance and a whist competition to raise money for me. Eventually, the government did contribute some of the funds.
It was always difficult. I also represented India in hockey but I was always an amateur. There was no money in sport and even today I haven't got any recognition from the government. We got no prize money or anything from advertisements. But I never regretted it. I always loved to compete and I'm always grateful I got a chance. I was a girl from a family of 12 and without my athletic career I would have never got to see the world. I was able to represent my country as a sports ambassador across the world. And that will always be special.
(As told to Jonathan Selvaraj)