THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: There was a tinge of melancholy in everything Preeja Sreedharan did on Thursday evening. Though the fate of the 10000m race was decided just after two laps, Preeja assiduously traced the steps of leader OP Jaisha, who was, nevertheless, invincible.
The gap between the leader and Preeja was burgeoning, pushing the spectators into a pall of gloom. However, the lone solace was that another ace-runner,who represents the host state, was at the helm.
As the race was nearing it’s end, Preeja was laggingbehind by more than a lap. Still the crowd stood up, giving her ovation.
After 25 circumambulations around the green grass, Preeja touched the line. By then, the crowd was on their toes, shouting ‘Preeja, Preeja’. They vacated their seats and moved to the iron grill to become part of a farewell that Indian athletics was scarcely used to.
It was a farewell that any Indian athlete would have dreamt of. Preeja’s lap of honour easily struck a chord with the emotionally-charged crowd. They resembled a raging sea, pushing and elbowing others to catch a glimpse of the athlete who has been leading India’s long-distance challenge for the last six years or so.
Still, the adrenalin-rush was balanced, and at times negated, by the pervading sense of meloncholy. They knew that they won’t see Preeja in action again. It was curtains for a brilliant career that saw an Asian Games gold and silver.
Preeja, however admitted that the support wasn’t too much of a surprise for her. “I knew many would come to cheer me. I had all my family here as well as many from my hometown in Palakkad,” said the 32-year-old.
“Even if the 5,000 metre on the opening day was a disappointing race personally, I could see wonderful support from the stands,” said Preeja, who could only finish fourth in that race.
However, the Olympian said she is happy to have finished on a good note by winning silver in the 10000 metre. “I’m a little sad for not winning gold, but I am happy to take this,” said Preeja, who has both the 5000m and 10000m national records to her name.
Meanwhile, sprint queen P T Usha felt that Preeja should be fortunate enough to bid adieu at such a grand stand. “Many a time, athletes do not get the farewell they deserve due to injuries or other reasons. She is lucky to end her career winning silver at the Naitonal Games,” said Usha, who announced her retirement at a press conference in 2000.
Mercy Kuttan, who quit in 1989 while still attending the national camp disheartened by government’s continuing disregard in giving her the Arjuna Award, also said she is happy for Preeja.
“It was so frustrating for me during my final days of my playing career. All I wished for Preeja was she winning a gold. I was so impressed with all the attention that I wished I could also run there,” Mercy said.
However, Usha said that it is important to sustain the interest ahtletics has generated during the Games.
“During the 1970s and 80s, we regularly witnessed such crowd across the country. But due to many reasons, the sports lovers across the country have started to stay away from the stadiums over the past few decades,” saidthe 50-year-old.
“After the National Games, it is important that we continue to take the sport to its fans and the sports administrators must decide on what can be done to conduct other tournament too with the publicity the Games has recieved,” she said.