June 29, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Shobha Warrier

Born to Run

Are you crazy? You are 70 years old. A grandmother. Why do you want to run even now? Why don't you sit at home and look after your grandchildren?"

Daisy Victor -- she has won 52 medals (27 gold, 12 silver, 13 bronze) as a competing athlete at various international meets since 1981 -- is quite used to hearing such insensitive remarks. In fact, this grandmother of 12 (and mother of six) seems rather amused at the attitude of the world.

"Running gives me a lot of happiness," she says simply. "God has given me the strength and talent to run, so I run. Let people say what they want."

Last year, at the Asian Veterans Athletic Meet in Bangalore in November, Daisy won two gold, one silver and two bronze medals. This year, she has been selected to participate in the World Veterans Athletic Meet to be held in Brisbane, Australia, from July 4. The only reason she will not participate is because she cannot afford the airfare. She tries to console herself by attributing it to the will of God, but it is a disappointing blow.

"Nobody is interested in sponsoring an old person to Brisbane. They wonder why veterans should take part in athletic events. They feel it is not worth investing money in old people. They believe old people need not run. They should sit at home and take rest."

Even when she returned from earlier events with gold medals, there was no excitement. There was nobody to receive her at the airport, no one to appreciate her effort, no incentive from any quarter. When younger athletes win a gold, silver or bronze medal at the international level, they are offered incentives in the form of money. All Daisy Victor has got for winning 52 medals from nine international meets is apathy and indifference.

Once you reach Milk Colony at the northern end of Madras, finding Daisy's house is not difficult. One had to only ask about her and the teashop owner said, "Oh, the old lady who runs? Ninth road on the left side."

Daisy is not the least surprised by the description. "Ever since I came here," she chuckles, "I have been running and exercising in the open ground in the mornings. Earlier, the people of the neighbourhood would tease and mock me. Soon, they got used to me. Then, some of them saw my pictures in the newspapers and realised I was serious about what I was doing. They came to know I was winning medals too! Of late, many have started taking my advice about keep themselves fit. They tell me that, at the age of 50, they can’t even walk fast. They are surprised to see me, a 70-year-old grandma running with her teenaged grandchildren!"

In fact, she still beats her grandson -- who turned 14 this year -- in the 100 metre dash!

Daisy's tryst with running began way back in the thirties in the small town of Bellary, now in Karnataka. Her school was quite a few kilometres from her home and she preferred running along the railway track to reach there, sometimes practising triple jumps on the track. Once classes were over, she would run again -- this time around the school. Nothing, not even the ridicule of the other children, could stop her. "I love running. I feel I am born to run."

It was her father, a football player, who egged her into participating in school athletics. Once she began, it was a foregone conclusion that she would win the first prize; the competition was for the second and third places.

She started seriously participating in various athletic events only in 1951, after she joined the telephones department in Madras. She was 20 then.

Her love for running was so intense that, without telling anyone, she participated in a National Meet in 1962. She was then three months pregnant with her second child! Needless to say, she won the gold!

It was in 1981 that she first participated at the international level; in the World Veterans Athletic Meet at Christchurch in New Zealand in the 45 to 49 category! "I missed the 50-plus category by a few days, so I had to run with those who were five years younger than me. It was an exhilarating experience for me to compete with world-class athletes for the first time in my life. All of them looked so trim and young; I felt I was the fattest. All of them exercised in the gym and, mind you, I, a mother of six, was going to a gym for the first time in my life. I only came sixth in the finals, but I was not the least disappointed. I was extremely happy that I had reached the finals. When they announced my name, Daisy Victor of India, I was thrilled to bits. Another thing I can never forget was my meeting with Indira Gandhi. I was introduced to her by the great Milkha Singh after I came back from Christchurch."

After that exposure, she became wiser and more serious about her diet, weight, etc. She knew she had the ability to beat them if she practised. And beat them she did. Immediately after the World Meet, she was selected to participate in the Asian meet at Singapore. She won four gold medals, two silver and a bronze. Since then, there has been no looking back.

At the next World Meet in Hong Kong, she tallied six gold medals and two silver medals. "I remember the lady from Hong Kong -- she was a six footer -- telling me she couldn't match my speed in the 100 metre dash. After I beat her, she told me, 'You are only 5 feet 2, but your speed is amazing."

How did she finance these trips?

The government reimbursed 75 per cent of her airfare for her first trip but, after that, she has been "begging and borrowing money from my relatives -- especially from an unmarried brother -- and friends to go abroad and participate in international events. My desire to run alongside athletes from all over the world is so intense I was willing to spend my own money. Now that I have retired, I can't even do that. How will I pay back the money I borrowed? So I decided I would participate in World Athletic Meets only if they were held in India. Unfortunately, that only happens rarely."

As she arranged her awards on the table for us, she said, "Half my medals are stolen. I think the thief mistook them for real gold and silver… poor man. I wish I had them back."

Determination, a drive to excel, complete faith in the Almighty and total surrender to Him; these qualities are strikingly evident in this remarkable woman. "I wish somebody sponsored my trip to Brisbane. I long to run. If not this meet, I look forward to the Asian Veterans Meet to be held in China later this year. I want to win as many gold medals as possible there. I practise every day with hope..."

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj. Page design: Dominic Xavier

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