In 2014-15, when volleyballer Jerome Vinith was in a six-month players’ camp away from home, he started craving familiar food from his home in Tamil Nadu. “I kept thinking: When will I get a dosa or sambar or white rice? I mostly desired kanji (water of boiled rice). Bread was so boring. I began to wonder: Would I not get a break at all? We were in this same room all the time, like machines….”
It’s periods like these that test the resolve of a competitive sportsperson, used to spending a long time away from home and family. Furthermore, like several athletes who found themselves at a loose end when the pandemic—and subsequent lockdown—hit in 2020-21, Jerome also bemoaned the loss of two years. Age is important for an athlete because they have limited years at the peak of their athletic abilities.
“During covid, some institutions like (employers) BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd) helped (me) continue practice in their gym, ground. I never stopped training, at home or on the ground. But during this time, college, school-level players were badly affected,” says the 6’5’’ tall player who fills the role of a universal in the team.
With the several restrictions these past seasons, including bio-bubbles, Jerome says he never before faced a situation like this, being in a room or hotel or ground with limited exposure to the outside world. To keep himself focussed, he would read motivational books in Tamil and visualise matches and tournaments. “Personally, I don’t get bored in a bubble,” he says. Sketching and painting was another energising exercise. He found making something out of a blank piece of paper fulfilling.
The 29-year-old, who spent much of his adolescent years working on his parents’ farm in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district, picked up volleyball only in his second year of college in 2011. He didn’t play much in school because he was not tall enough. In college, he learnt to play the game, channel his aggression when needed, and fight the urge to strike back at other players in confrontational situations. “I never look at the other player after a block. I concentrate on my job. You don’t focus on others,” he explains how he remains in control while playing a fast, intense team sport.
The highlight of his career came soon after, winning the Tamil Nadu senior state men’s volleyball championships in 2013 with SRM University, the first university team to do so, with Jerome starring in the final against Indian Overseas Bank. Soon after, he won the senior nationals as part of the Tamil Nadu team and was selected for India, among 21 players in the camp for the Asian Games.
The other peak of his career was winning the Asia Cup silver medal with the India team. He says, laughing, that there was no celebration at the moment. “We can’t really do anything of the sort. We went home, all of us. It’s not like the cricket team.”
Also read: The mental health of Indian athletes
Like most international athletes, the lowest phases in his career came due to injury, in 2012 with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and another in 2016, with two surgeries in the same leg. “I didn’t understand my future—I felt blinded,” he says, recalling the first time when he was out of the sport for eight months. “I was just learning (volleyball when the first one happened). I had discontinued college to play (the sport professionally).”
He got out of this phase by convincing himself that the only way out for him was to get back on the court. “There was no other option. I didn’t have money—the only thing in my hand was this,” he says.
Jerome, who will play for Calicut Heroes in the inaugural Prime Volleyball League that starts 5 February in Hyderabad, considers Ukkarapandian Mohan of the rival team Chennai Blitz as one of his mentors, having played with him in the Indian team. “Whatever I want, I can ask him as means of support,” Jerome says.
“I believe in myself, so I can face these pressure situations,” he adds, on playing the sport competitively. “I know the (tough) situation will come any time, but it will make me better than before. I don’t have any sources besides volleyball—that teaches everything.”
Though not particularly religious, Jerome says he likes to go to different places of worship because they make him feel better to give him energy.
He also likes everything about the sport but, “we don’t really get everything, do we? I might want this or that or the other. You have to be happy with whatever is. I give my 100 per cent in whatever I do. Volleyball has made me what I am—I never grudge travel or never get worried," he says. “When I am playing, I forget the world.”