Booze-loving Malayali's only connection with Punjab probably is 'Patiala Peg'. But Kerala's Olympian marathoner Orchatteri Puthiyaveetil Jaisha found the panacea for all her problems at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala soon after she landed in the city in 2010. The Asian Games bronze medal winner, who fought off abject poverty and hunger to become India's celebrated athlete, was struggling with form and injuries when she joined the camp at NIS, where she met her future husband Gurmeet Singh, a former sprinter and coach from Ludhiana.
Jaisha, who finished 89th in Rio Olympics women’s 42km marathon, still doesn't know whether it was love at first sight or love for sports or divine intervention that united them.
Hurdles in life were nothing new to the 34-year-old runner from Thrissilery in Wayanad district who still holds the national marathon record. An accident left her father bed-ridden when she was five and the family had no money to send its four daughters to school. “There were days when I ate mud because I could not starve anymore,” she once told a national daily in an interview.
Gurmeet's entry into her life helped her overcome slackness in form and rekindle her Olympic dreams.
Jaisha, who is a Railway employee, and Gurmeet, a coach with Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, are power partners in their own right. They are a couple who run together and challenge each other. On Valentine's Day, they tell Onmanorama how they ran past all the hurdles together and what makes them a sporty couple.
Q: How did you meet and fall in love?
Jaisha: I met Gurmeet in Patiala in 2010 when he was doing his coach’s certification course and I was training at the NIS. It is not like a big love story. Not the type of love full of passion and fascinated by the idea of 'lived happily ever after'. We were united through sports.
Gurmeet: We both had the same target — to achieve something in sports. In fact, we only discussed sports then and even now it’s the same. I had never met anyone so confident and passionate about sports till I found her. I fell in love with her and her dreams.
Q: What made you choose a life together? What were the challenges you faced in coming together?
Gurmeet: There was no doubt in my decision to share life with her. We knew that we could influence each other and overcome the hardships and struggles.
Jaisha (laughs): I would say that it was God's will. We were meant to be together.
Gurmeet: Initially, we had to face a lot of challenges. It was hard for my family to understand as it was an inter-caste marriage. They had an initial inhibition to say yes to our relationship but as time passed they understood what we wanted in life.
Jaisha: It was more easy for me as I have always been an independent person. I always considered and respected others' opinions but the decision was always mine. In my life 80 per cent of the decisions solely depend on me.
Q: How do you strike a work-life balance?
Jaisha: We still haven't started living. I was always busy trying to grab an opportunity that came my way and put my heart and soul into athletics. I came to this field to live and survive and I did. I owe everything to sports and family comes second only. If I am known to Indians, it's athletics that brought me the fame. There were tough times and after a small break, I came back with more determination. And I would proudly say that it was Gurmeet who made it easy for me. He helped me achieve my dreams.
Gurmeet: I understood that it was important to instill belief in her after she was excluded from the national camp. I quit my college job in Ludhiana and went with her to the training center in Dharamsala. After spending nine months, she regained her form. Jaisha was very determined and went on breaking records. It's every coach's dream to see their athletes performing their best and I was more than happy for her.
Q: Have you faced any situation where your personal and professional commitments came into conflict?
Gurmeet: We are from two different states. Except for sports, our families had nothing in common. In fact, it was difficult to make my family understand how important it was for Jaisha to chase her dreams. There were times when she got tired after training and I used to prepare breakfast and lunch for her. Rather than conflicts, we planned how to work out things in life.
Jaisha: Gurmeet has never said no to any of my decisions. He gave me enough space and freedom to choose what I wanted. While I stay in Wayanad coaching students now, he stays in Ludhiana. But we know that this is also part of our life and we would overcome this just like any other struggle we had gone through. Right now it's all about sports.
Q: What’s the one thing that hooked you most to your partner?
Jaisha: His love for sports and a kind heart to help budding talents chase their dreams. Gurmeet told me once “Never stop sports unless you want to”.
Gurmeet: Not just one but three things: hard work, dedication and self-determination. She once said, “I will make a mark in Olympics”. Jaisha qualified for Rio Olympics that year. She said she would win an Asian Games medal. She did and she is an achiever.
Q: What’s the wider dream you nurture together?
Jaisha and Gurmeet together: Our dream is to see our students excel wherever they go. It's a proud moment to see athletes trained by us bringing home a medal. That's our dream.
Q: A word for the young athletes?
Jaisha: I used to eat mud because I could not starve anymore. This story is known to everyone. But if I was able to scale greater heights overcoming penury, I believe anyone could be a champion. Give life to sports and you will never be disappointed.
Gurmeet: If you are ready to work hard with full dedication and the right focus, no one can stop you from reaching your goal. You will have to sacrifice many things in life if you really love sports.