The call went unattended. Knowing the woman, there was no doubt she would return it. And, she did so after a couple of hours. There was so much background noise that her voice was not audible. All that could be made out was that she was speaking from a hospital and the promise that she would call later.
It is no surprise when a septuagenarian pushing 80 visits a hospital, but people of Coimbatore who know the warhorse Dr. Vasantha Samuel cannot easily believe that the woman can be sick. A veteran athlete since 1986, she has brought several laurels to the state and country, which she herself has lost count of, in her passion spanning 31 years.
As it turned out, she had accompanied her 49-year-old son to the hospital. A homoeopath by profession, Dr. Vasantha was leading a regular life, bringing up her three sons while practising alongside her homoeopath husband Dr. CP Samuel.
A chance meeting with a friend in 1986 changed her life inexplicably, which even after 31 years, has not reverted to the ordinary. He introduced her to veteran sports at the age of 49. Not knowing which sport she was good at, she participated at the State Athletics’ Meet in Coimbatore in the 100-meter dash, shot put and high jump events, only to bag the second place in all three. Selected for the nationals in Madurai, she took part in high jump, long jump and triple jump. She again came second in all three.
This meant representing India at the Asian Masters’ (Veteran) Athletics’ Meet in Singapore in April 1987. She needed coaching to meet such standards. That is when her 15-year-old son Dinesh Samuel came to her rescue. Good in high jump, he turned a coach for his mother and started training her at Stanes School in Coimbatore, where he was studying. Dr. Vasantha remembers him to be a tough coach. But it is this training that got her the gold in her very first Asian outing. After that there was no looking back.
When pole vault and hammer throw were introduced in veteran sports, Dr. Vasantha decided to take up pole vault and made her debut at the IX World Masters’ Athletics’ Championship in Finland in 1991, making her the only Asian to participate in the event. Unable to find a fibre pole for women, she carried a bamboo one, cut and shaped by her husband. She bagged the fifth place and in appreciation of her maiden effort the Finnish Government presented her with two fibre poles. The news of her effort travelled till the United States and she was honoured by President George HW Bush with the ‘Presidential Sports Award’ in 1992. The citation and badge were sent to her in India. She says that there is a very rare chance that another non-American would have been honoured thus. She continues to proudly display the badge on her chest.
Due to lack of sponsorships she had to skip the next three world meets. She would have skipped the next one too, but tragedy forced her to participate. Though she was the national champion in pole vault, it was her husband’s dream to see her as the Asian and world champion. It was a quirk of fate that he did not see the day she won gold in pole vault at the Asian level and a bronze at the international level.
Dr. Samuel died in a tragic scooter accident in July 2000. Fiercely holding on to his memory and his wish, Dr. Vasantha went ahead and participated in the Asian Masters’ Athletics’ Championship held in November in Bengaluru the same year. Having bagged the gold, she went on to participate in the XIV World Masters’ Athletics’ Championship in Brisbane, Australia, in 2001 to bag a bronze. The same year, at 64, having fulfilled her late husband’s wish, she gave up pole vaulting.
But she kept up her medal haul in her three favourite events – high jump, long jump and triple jump in the categories of 50+, 60+, 70+ and now continues to do so as she enters the 80+ category. She is now the eldest veteran sportsperson among the 400 member-strong Coimbatore District Masters’ Athletics’ Association.
Though she does not miss the district / State / national meets, but the Asian and international masters’ meets go unattended sometimes due to lack of funds. She is in the same quandary right now, as she has been selected to represent India at the XX Asian Masters’ Athletics’ Championship in China in September this year. As is the case with most of the sports in India, barring cricket, veteran sports are hugely neglected.
“It is royal begging. While a few of us have managed to make it several times, there are others, who are very good sportspersons, but have not been able to manage to participate even in a single international meet. It is not always possible to get sponsorships for our trips abroad,” says Dr. Vasantha, who has to arrange for Rs. 80,000 for her China meet.
For the State and national meets too, the train fare is not fully reimbursed, and the accommodation is usually dormitory type with the veterans having to sleep on bedding on the floor, even during severe winters. The Sports Authority of India is likely to bear the airfare for international meets only if the participant brings back a medal.
R. Radhamani, Secretary of the Coimbatore District Masters’ Athletic Association, says that the Government is willing to assist youngsters rather than the veterans. It is something like what are they going to achieve at this age. There is also this notion that since they have been earning they would be in a position to support themselves. It is also a fact that too many get selected to go abroad that the authorities are unable to support such a huge number.
Tamil Nadu leads the nation in veteran sports. The State lifted the overall trophy in 2017 national masters’ athletics’ meet in Hyderabad. In this year’s Asian meet, there are 140 participants from the State (93 men, 47 women) out of which 44 (25 men, 19 women) are from Coimbatore.
Dr. Vasanthi considers herself among the lucky few who have been able to barely manage. The Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore and Stanes School have allowed her free access of their premises for her practice sessions. Though her three sons are her source of support, it is her daughters-in-law who she terms as her assets. The family rallies round her and stands by her as she continues to live her passion. Her recipe for good health is a stress-free state of mind. She walks or runs three km every day, does all her chores by herself and also sees patients in the evening.
It has been a daunting journey so far, but she has been at it without expecting anything in return. She has about 500 medals in her kitty, with more than 250 golds, followed by 175 silvers, and the rest bronze. For the laurels she has brought to the state and the country, Dr. Vasantha has not received any honour or award from the State or Central Government. Though this has not done anything to diminish her love for the sport, she has however resolved to travel for international meets only if she gets sponsors – “Why should we spend personal money to get a medal for India when the country does not want to support us?”
She hopes to keep the spirit alive till her last day, even if the only recognition she sports on her chest came from a foreign country.