It is children and adults with disabilities who have gained most from Saji’s coaching.

This swimming coach from Kerala is helping the disabled conquer the Periyar River
news Human Interest Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - 18:50

On the morning of 11 May, a 13-year-old boy named Adith, who suffers from speech and hearing impairment, swam across the 200 metre wide Periyar River in 32 minutes. He was accompanied by his coach Saji Valasseril who helped him put his skills much ahead of his disability in just 24 days.

By flaunting Adith’s intense dedication and hard work, Saji wanted to tell the world that anyone could conquer the mighty river.

The Thekkady boat disaster in 2009, when 45 people lost their lives had a lasting impact on Saji Valasseril, who runs a furniture business in Aluva. It was after this incident that Saji began training his 7-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to swim in the harsh waters of the Periyar River. 

Kerala had witnessed several boat accidents in last few decades that killed hundreds of men, women and children. For Saji, his training was not to win medals but it was to enable people, especially the physically-challenged, to conquer unruly waters.

His swimming coaching that started with four children, including two of his own and two of his friend’s children, has now become the Valasseril River Swimming Club that trains 416 children.

Saji Valasseril coaching his students. 

And, their swimming pool is the 30 feet deep and 600 metre-wide Periyar River.

The Valasseril River Swimming Club, though not registered under an agency, conducts swimming coaching for children and adults during the months of March, April and May. The coach claims that he trains his students in such a manner that by the end of 20 days, they will swim across the Periyar River with ease. What’s more interesting is that he coaches them for free.

It is children and adults with disabilities who have gained most from Saji’s coaching. He has given them a chance to conquer their own fears and limitations by pushing them to triumph over the river. 

Adith with his coach Saji Valasseri.

In 2014, 7-year-old Krishna S Kamath, who was born with a defect in the spinal cord, approached Saji when one of her doctors recommended her to learn swimming. Krishna’s left leg did not function properly and she could not fold her legs. In a week and a half, she learnt swimming and crossed the 200 mts Periyar stretch in 25 minutes. Her father Sanjay Kumar says, “The coach and his children helped her overcome her fear and her disability to a great extent. It was a superhuman effort indeed.”

In June, two years ago, Saji had helped Navaneeth, a 12 year-old visually challenged boy swim across the Periyar stretch in just 12 days with special training. A year later, 5-year-old Niveditha took a plunge into record books as she became the youngest girl to have crossed the same stretch under Saji’s guidance.

Malu Shaika, a 20 year-old insurance policy advisor from Aluva, went a step further and crossed the mighty Vembanad Lake in 4 hours and 20 minutes. She swam across the 9 km stretch after being trained by Saji for 8 continuous months in the Periyar. “I did it for all the women who shy away from public spaces,” said Shaika after her debut attempt.

“Without taking a single penny from his students, coach Valasseril shows immense dedication towards the cause of swimming to save lives. He is an asset to the people of Aluva,” says 51-year-old Radhakrishnan, who was born with a disability of his right arm. 

A senior clerk at Aluva Taluk office, he conquered his fear of drowning by crossing the Periyar stretch in 20 minutes in March this year. Despite his initial reluctance in coaching Radhakrishnan due to his age and disability, Saji began training him in February owing to the latter’s persistence.

Saji with his studeents at the end of the 2014 summer camp at the Valasseril River Swimming Club.

“Every year since 2012, more than 70 kids have joined this centre. But not all of them have crossed the river due to reluctance of parents to let them take up this challenging feat,” says 52-year-old Saji.

Despite concerns of safety, the Valasseril River Swimming Club insists on training students in the river to tell the world that swimming is a task that can be easily accomplished.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me if parents don’t send their children to school. But they should definitely train them in swimming. Nobody should die drowning. This is mainly why I started this centre,” he says.

 

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