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The loneliest run: Indian Olympian recounts Rio marathon ordeal

Left to race without water, Jaisha relied on thoughts of God and family

NEW DELHI -- The pressure of the Olympics is intense at the best of times. Athletes, after all, are carrying the hopes and expectations of entire nations on their shoulders.

Orchatteri Puthiya Veetil Jaisha emerged from a small village in Kerala to become a national record-setting runner. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

But what if, in the heat of competition, you felt abandoned by the very country you were representing? Indian runner Orchatteri Puthiya Veetil Jaisha, commonly known as O.P. Jaisha, caused a stir at the Rio de Janeiro Games last August when she said her country's officials had failed to provide her with water during the women's marathon. 

What was going through her mind during that lonely race? How did she make it the full 42.195km? The Nikkei Asian Review spoke with the 34-year-old Olympian, who offered her own perspective on the world's fastest growing economy.  

This is her side of the story, edited for clarity.

"I started to think I would die"

It was a very hot and sunny day in Rio. It was 33 C even in the shade, so it must have been over 40 C in the sun.

Normally, before running races, we warm up by jogging 3km, but that day we only jogged for 10 minutes due to the high temperature.

We started the marathon at 9:30 a.m. I was sure I would not win a medal, but I knew I could finish within 2 1/2 hours, renewing the Indian national record of 2:34 I set in 2015 at the World Championships in Beijing. That was my first marathon in an international competition, after our national coach told me to switch from running the 1,500 meters.

Just after the Rio race started, I realized something was wrong. There was no water, nor energy drinks at India's water stations -- just a national flag. There were no officials, either, even though a big group had flown in from India with us athletes. At other countries' stations, there were drinks and officials. I remember seeing Japanese and Kenyans.

I thought it was a mistake at the beginning of the route, and expected a water bottle on the next table, as the stations were located every 2.5km. But every time I approached and looked at India's table, there was nothing. Again and again, there were no bottles. 

Jaisha thought about her father, left, during the marathon in Rio. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

There were three places where the Olympic organizers provided water, but it was very difficult to survive with just three small bottles.

By the time I reached 21km, I stopped expecting to see water on the next table. Up to that point, I was one of the 12 to 13 runners in the fastest group. But the lack of water began to affect me, not only physically but mentally, too.

I started to think I would die. Gradually, I fell farther and farther behind the group.

Race of a lifetime

I grew up in a very poor family in a village in the southern state of Kerala. My family was too poor to find 3 rupees (5 cents) for my bus ride. When I was 4 years old, my father had a road accident and lost his job. Milk from two or three cows was our only source of income. It was hardly enough to prevent my six-member family from going hungry. Lunch at school was the only meal of the day for me, but even that was just watery rice with green peas. I don't know how we survived.

When I was 17, there was an 800-meter race on a village road near my house. I went to watch, just for fun, but somebody asked me to run because there were only five or six runners. I was wearing a skirt and was barefoot, yet I finished No. 1, despite having no experience. The certificate from this result allowed me to enroll in college through a special sports admission program. I went on to win three gold medals one year at the All India Inter University Athletics Championships, in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Then I became a runner for Indian Railways, and a national-level runner.

On the road in Rio, I guessed that no Indian officials had come out because of the heat. There were also media reports saying that many officials and ministers had gone sightseeing.

When I run -- whether for practice or in a race -- I usually don't think about anything except improving. But in Rio, after 21km, I started praying in my mind to God, Jesus. I am Hindu, but I believe in Jesus because I studied at a Christian college.

"My God, please help me," I thought. "I don't wish for anything else, but I want to finish. This may be the last run of my life, but please don't stop me in the middle of the road."

Why did I pray and run? While I was sure I would die if I continued on without water, there were two things in my mind. Of course, one was that it would be shameful for India if I could not finish. The other: my poor parents back home.

I was brought up in a small house made of mud and straw. It once collapsed when a heavy wind came in the rainy season. My family often took shelter in neighbors' houses. So I felt lucky to be staying in a good athlete hostel with air conditioning and TV. My heart was full of apologies, and I promised my family that one day I would give them a comfortable home that would never be knocked down by the wind.

But my salary is only 21,000 rupees per month, and a lot of that goes toward my 12,000-rupee shoes, shirts and travel fares for domestic races. I also give some money to my parents for their expenses.

To save for that house, I needed prize money from international competitions. I knew that if I finished the marathon in Rio, Indian Railways would give me 500,000 rupees and the Kerala state government would give another 300,000.

My father is already 74. My dream was to give them the house before he dies. While I had been saving from earlier competitions, without the 800,000 rupees from Rio, there would be no house. 

So, I prayed: "Please, Jesus. I want to finish."

Around that time, I started to pick up energy drink bottles other runners had discarded along the road. They were almost empty, but I picked up five or six to sip the last drops. 

Jaisha and her family outside their new, concrete house in Kerala (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

I don't remember whether the race ended in a stadium or on the road, but I do remember I fell down right on the finish line. When the Olympic doctors came to carry me to a hospital, I felt like they were carrying my dead body. 

In the hospital, I was conscious. I could not speak, open my eyes or move my hands and legs for six or seven hours, but I was aware of everything. The medical staff cut my clothes, put my overheated body in an ice bath, and returned me to bed. I later came down with H1N1 flu as a result of the ice bath.

Even there, no Indian officials came to see me. Nobody came. Only my coach came, after about an hour and a half. He touched my hand and couldn't feel my pulse, so he called somebody, saying, "Jaisha is dead."

But today, our new concrete home is almost complete -- it just needs to be painted. We've already started living there, and my parents are very happy. During the Rio race, it occurred to me that God is not in this world, but now I think God was there and helped me. I've placed a cross and bibles in my room. 

This is my second life. 

A new dream

Since last August, there have been arguments, including in the media, over why there was no water for me and who was responsible. I was also questioned by the government as part of their investigation.

In the end, they concluded it was the coach's mistake -- that he told Indian officials the day before the race that I would not need water. But it's hard to believe that could have happened, since no one can run a marathon without water.  

I heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked to form a special task force to improve the Indian Olympic team for the next three games, due to the low medal count in Rio. I believe he is sincere, but I wonder if the concerned ministries and authorities will seriously work on it.

I don't ask much of God. Every morning, I practice very hard, and I just want my results to reflect that practice. 

Now, I have decided that in addition to running myself, I will be a coach in Kerala. I will train poor students, hopefully putting them on a path to good jobs, which will make their families happy. This is my new dream. This is what I can give back to sports, which have given everything to me -- someone who had nothing.

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