Just before I turned 13, the state started a new sports school for girls. My uncles, both teachers there, decided I should apply. They thought it would give me an advantage in medical school or help get a teacher’s job. But my father was not so keen. I was a sickly child, and he didn’t think I could take the rough and tumble of life in a sports school.
I really wanted to go because I loved running. The neighbours told my mother: "Why do you want to send your girl to sports school? She’s a girl, na, it’s not good sending her so far." But my mother is very bold. She told them: "What is there! Her uncles will look after her."
The school was in Kannur, only an hour by bus from home. I was a bit homesick. But there was so much to do: get up at 5 am, go to the grounds by 5.45 am, training from 6-8.30 am, back to the hostel for breakfast and shower, school, back for lunch, school, training again after school. From the beginning, I wanted to be first in everything. My coach, Nambiar sir, used to give out toffees to any girl who got her exercises right. I won the most toffees. If there was something I couldn’t get right, I didn’t sleep. There were 40 athletes in the school, but I came first in everything—high jump, long jump, javelin, running.
My first competition came up in the first month in the school. Some girls from St Teresa’s in Ernakulam came for the race. They wore shorts and had spiked shoes, and they did a warm-up. I’d never seen a warm-up before, and wondered why they were wasting their energy. They crouched before taking off. I was barefoot, in a frock, and I didn’t know how to sit and start. But I won.
It’s not as if my father wouldn’t have bought me spiked shoes if I had asked. He was a clothes merchant and though we weren’t well off—there were six children, five girls and a boy—he spared no expense when it came to me. I could have asked him for shoes. But you need training to run in spiked shoes, that’s why I preferred to run barefoot.
After winning against the St Teresa’s girls, I lost at the state-level. I couldn’t make it even to the heats. I remember the sprinter, Srilatha, who won the 100 m and 200 m at that event. I watched her as she stood on the victory stand. It is then that I vowed to myself that next time it would be me standing on the victory stand with the medals.
After that, I began to train rigorously. I won whatever I participated in—I won the under-14 100 m, the under-16 200 m, shotput, high jump, long jump, everything. My ambition began rising with each win. At first, I just wanted to win the race, then I wanted to break the record. I broke my first record when I was 13, in the 100 m. Then I wanted to break my own records. I had begun to take sports seriously.