When ace swimmer Wilson Cherian saw Shiny Abraham at the SAF Games at Kathmandu in 1984, he was immediately attracted. He went up and congratulated Shiny on becoming the first Indian athlete to reach the semi-finals of an international track and field event. This happened during the 800m event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Shiny said, “Thank you.”
Thereafter, Wilson told his friend and fellow swimmer, TJ Jacob, who is now the DIG of the Central Reserve Police Force that Shiny was a smart girl.
“Do you like her?” asked Jacob.
“Yes I do,” he said.
Jacob told Lissy Varghese, who was Shiny’s roommate about this. Lissy then told Shiny about it. The champion athlete runner pondered over this for four days. Then she told Lissy, “Please ask Wilson to talk to my parents.”
Thus, Wilson’s father, CK Cherian, and Shiny’s father, KP Abraham, met at Palai. “Both concluded that we were too young to get married,” says Wilson. At that time, Wilson was 20 while Shiny was 19.
“We decided to get married after the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul,” says Wilson.
But in the intervening period, they were far apart at times. There were periods when Shiny would be at a camp in Delhi, while Wilson was in Patiala. “There were no mobile phones in those days,” says Wilson. “A letter would take ten days to reach.”
Sometimes, they would meet in foreign countries. In 1985, Wilson had gone to Sydney in Australia for training. At that time there was a World Cup in Athletics at Canberra. Wilson heard that Shiny would be taking a connecting flight from Sydney to Canberra. So, Wilson, along with a Malayali friend, and Khazan Singh, an Asian Games medallist went by car to Sydney airport. “It was a three-hour journey from where we lived,” says Wilson. “I met Shiny for about ten minutes before she had to board the flight to Canberra.”
Eventually, according to plan, the couple got married on November 20, 1988, at the St. Mary’s Church, Pala. Thereafter, they went for a honeymoon to Thekkady, but there were 15 people who accompanied them. They included Shiny’s parents, brother and sisters, Bula Choudhury, a long-distance champion swimmer from Kolkata, and her coach Sanjib Chakraborty.
“Yes, it was a crowded honeymoon,” says Wilson, with a laugh. “It was something similar to the film, ‘Mithunam’.” When Mohanlal and Urvashi go for a honeymoon, the superstar takes the entire family along, much to the disappointment of Urvashi.
Despite his tongue-in-cheek comment, Wilson is not only an admirer of Shiny’s talent as a runner, but of her as a human being. “She is a simple and down-to-earth person,” says Wilson. “She gets along with all types of people. Shiny has never behaved like a champion athlete.”
But for Wilson, her best quality is her capacity to render assistance to people. “If anybody is facing any problems, Shiny goes out of her way to help. I am sometimes amazed at this aspect of her character.”
Not many people may remember that Shiny has also displayed a fighting spirit during her illustrious career (see box). And unlike most Indian women who take it easy after having children, Shiny took part in two Olympic Games - 1992, Barcelona, and 1996, Atlanta - following the birth of her eldest daughter, Shilpa in 1990.
“She was 74 kgs just after her pregnancy,” says Wilson. “Two months later we went for a training camp in Bangalore. People made fun, wondering how she could become an athlete once again.”
In fact, when she attended a couple of functions, photos appeared which showed that she was quite plump. One reporter said that she can never become an athlete again, but can pass the time inaugurating functions. “That made her more determined,” says Wilson. “Shiny began training very hard, brought her weight down to 59 kgs, and won a 400m gold medal and a 800m silver, within ten months, at the Asian Athletics Championships at Kuala Lumpur in 1991.”
Today, the couple lives a quiet life in Chennai. They are the parents of Shilpa, 22, Sandra, 13, and Shane, 10. While Shiny is the General Manager at the Food Corporation of India, Wilson is a senior Sports Officer in the Railways. Both of them stay in occasional touch with their sport. Every morning, Shiny does a couple of rounds at a nearby Corporation stadium, while Wilson does an hour’s swimming at the Railway Officers’ Club. “I take part in Masters meets,” he says.