KOCHI: Five extremely competitive middle-distance races in the space of just four days — that is the kind of trial Jinson Johnson could encounter at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia in little over two weeks’ time.
Jinson will first step out on the athletics track of the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Central Jakarta on the morning of August 27 for the 800m round 1 followed by semifinals at 8.20 pm the very same day.
He is widely expected to finish on the podium in the final scheduled for 8.15 pm the next day, but the 27-year-old will have little time to celebrate. He will begin preparations for the 1500m heats, which will take place in less than 24 hours.
The 1,500m final will follow on August 30, bringing to an end an extremely demanding and frenetic 96 hours for Jinson. But he loves the toil that comes with it and is looking forward to bringing back a medal from both events.
As someone who recently broke decades-old national records in both 800m and 1,500m, Jinson believes it is his responsibility to represent the nation in both events at the international level. “It is going to be mentally and physically very taxing, but I am confident I can do my best in both events. Running five races in such a short time frame is something I have been preparing for a long time now,” Jinson tells Express from the Thimphu Track and Field Centre in Bhutan.
For over two months now, he has been training with his teammates at the facility over 2,300 metres above sea level and feels he is in fine fettle ahead of the continental showdown. “The advantage we have here over Ooty is that we have a synthetic track here,” says the Kerala athlete.
Jinson believes he has upped his performance leaps and bounds in the past one year he has been training under Dronacharya Award-winning JS Bhatia. “It has been quite an experience to work under someone whose proteges include PT Usha and Bahadur Prasad,” he says.
Jinson’s current personal bests in 800m (1:45.65) and 1,500m (3:37.86) could have won him gold at the 2014 Asian Games, but he believes it won’t be as straightforward in Jakarta. “Both 800 and 1,500 metres are two extremely tactical races and it is not all about the timing,” Jinson says.
“And that has been where I was lacking before. If you look at it, the 800m Olympic gold in Rio was won in 1:42.15 seconds and the 1,500-metre in 3:50.00. So, you have to be fast and astute at the same time to win,” says the athlete from Chakkittapara village of Kozhikode.
Jinson started his athletics career early but his initial years were filled with setbacks. The turning point came when he began training under KM Peter, a retired bank administrator and uncertified coach from his village, who took a 17-year-old Jinson under his wings. “I only gave him systematic training and sometimes that is all that is needed. He had the dedication and willingness to make it work,” remembers Peter. Under him, Jinson broke the national schools mark in 1,500m and won national schools gold in 800m — all within a year and a half of coaching.
In 2009, he joined the Indian Army where he began his association with coach Mohammed Kunhi in 2012 while at the Army Sports Institute, Pune. Five years under Kunhi saw Jinson gain confidence to compete at international events, winning silver at the 2015 Asian Athletics Championship in Wuhan and bronze at the 2017 event in Pune.
“Jinson is supremely confident now and what sets him apart is that he has his own opinions. He is someone who knows what he wants and is willing to go to any lengths to achieve them. He was written off at Wuhan even by Indian officials but won silver there,” Kunhi says.
Kunhi feels Jinson was unfortunate to bow out in the heats of the 2016 Olympics but is confident he has come a long way since then. “He didn’t have enough exposure back then. But now, he has improved and has become more tactically aware,” adds Kunhi.
However, to sustain performance levels across two events will be a tough ask. “1,500 is my favourite event, but it is in 800 metres that I qualified for the Olympics. So I do not want to drop either at the moment,” says Jinson.
Kunhi feels Jinson will have better prospects if he concentrated solely on the 1,500 metres ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “His timings in the last few years give weight to the argument and his skillset is more ideal for the lengthier race,” says Kunhi.
Events: 800m, 1,500m
Date of birth: March 15, 1991
Place: Kozhikode, Kerala
Personal bests: 1:45.65 (800m), 3:37.86 (1,500m)
Jinson stopped the clock at 1:45.65 to smash legendary athlete Sriram Singh’s 42-year-old 800 metres record, which was the oldest in Indian athletics, at the 58th national inter-state athletics championship in Guwahati on June 27, 2018
Though he had to settle for the fourth place, Jinson clocked 3:37.86s in the 1500m finals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast on April 14, 2018, to break the 23-year-old national record set by Bahadur Prasad at the 1995 South Asian Games in Chennai.