All confidence on the field, Mariyappan is shy and reticent off it, still unused to his new-found fame.

On a high note Mariyappan Thangavelu opens up about life sport and his historic victory
Features Sports Saturday, November 19, 2016 - 21:00

He may have won a gold medal for India and caught the world’s attention on the international sporting stage, but Paralympian Mariyappan Thangavelu is still unused to his new-found fame.

“Before, when I went out, nobody really paid attention to me. But now I can’t even step out of the house without people gathering around me,” he says, in a voice almost too quiet to be heard.

Appearing at the India Inclusion Summit, a two-day summit on disability, the 21-year-old high jumper who made history with his 1.89m jump, says that he’s happy to be recognised for his efforts. “If it’s just a few people wanting to congratulate me, I like it. But sometimes, if there are too many people, I’ll take off,” he says matter-of-factly in Tamil.

He might be reticent off the field, but Mariyappan is completely sure of himself when talking about his medal-winning jump. “When I cleared the bar, I was thrilled that I had won a gold medal for India... I was confident that I could clear that height even before I began the attempt. I had gone in with the determination that I would come back with a gold medal.”

His coach Satyanarayana, who also coaches bronze medal-winner Varun Bhati, says he was not as sure when Mariyappan readied for his jump. “He had actually never cleared by 1.89m before that day. I thought that he would only get the silver and I should be happy.” However, not only did Mariyappan clear that height, he also narrowly missed clearing the height of 1.92m.

As for the world record at 1.96 metres, set by Arnold Boldt at the 1980 Arnhem Paralympics, Satyanarayana says that is in their sights in the coming world championships. At Rio, he says, they were focused on the gold, “because Olympic medal is history... We set our target on the gold medal, not on the height record.”

Mariyappan, whose right leg has been stunted after it was crushed in an accident when he was five years old, says that he has never looked back at the accident with regret. “I always lived my life like all the other boys around me.” Indeed, Mariyappan, who played volleyball in school, competed for the first time in high jump alongside non-disabled athletes and finished second. “In my school days I always competed against normal athletes. And continued in sports in college, and that gave me the confidence to choose sports as a career,” says Mariyappan.

Mariyappan shows off his gold medal at the India Inclusion Summit in Bengaluru

Life has not always been easy for the high-jumper. The cost of treatment for his childhood accident was so high that his mother put herself into debts that she is still paying off years later. Mariyappan, who has often talked of his mother being one of his great inspirations, says that the moment when he announced his Paralympic victory to his mother was very emotional. “She was so happy she started crying,” he says, adding that he’s not sure if she understood how significant a victory it was, but knew that he had gone for a “big match” and won.

Despite their financial difficulties, and the added complications of his disability, says Mariyappan, his mother was always encouraging of his sporting ambitions. “She told me, ‘Do what makes you happy’.”

The other great support Mariyappan credits for his success is coach Satyanarayana. “After he saw me at a national meet, he came and convinced my family and also made arrangements at my college, and trained me here in Bengaluru for about two years. He has been more like a friend to me, supporting me through every practice and every day,” he says.

Satyanarayana says that given Mariyappan’s disability, his work as coach was not to make too many changes to the young jumper’s style, since such changes could hurt more than help. “How I could make a difference in his performance was by making sure he got training, food, equipment and rest in the correct time, and also moral support,” he explains.  

In all his training, says Satyanarayana, the focus was on working on the muscle groups that had already been strengthened in a particular way as a result of his disability. In particular, he says, that involved taking good care of Mariyappan’s right big toe, which gives him the leverage for his spectacular jumps. “Two years ago I told him, ‘Your right toe is like your god. Always keep it safe and strong’,” he explains.

With the dust of his Paralympic victory still settling, Mariyappan is already looking ahead to his next big opportunity at the World Championships in London in July 2017. While he’s glad for the support and recognition that is pouring in for him, he wants more attention to come by para-athletes in the country. “Whether it’s Olympics or Paralympics, we are playing for the country, so I wish they wouldn’t think of us (para-athletes) differently from the rest of the athletes.”

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