Mariyappan Thangavelu says he hardly cries. But the day he left for the Rio Paralympics, he wept. That, he says, was because his mother embraced him and cried. “I cannot stand tears in her eyes. So I began to cry, I felt like I didn’t want to go away from her. She has been everything to me,” he says.
Speaking to The Sunday Express from Rio, Thangavelu, 20, says the best gift he could give his mother, Saroja — a fruit-seller in Periavadamgatti, 60-odd kilometres from Salem, in Tamil Nadu — was to win a medal at the Games. “For all the hardship she had endured to look after us, I needed to win a medal. So I told her I would come back with a medal and she should pray for me at the village temple every day,” he says.
And he did. At 2.52 am on Saturday, the high jumper leapt to the top of the podium with a jump of 1.89 m, to become only the third Indian to win a gold medal at the Paralympic Games.
He wasn’t the only Indian to finish on the podium. Fellow high-jumper Varun Bhati, who was in the lead for a few minutes, cleared 1.86 m to clinch bronze as the two Paralympians matched India’s tally at the recent Olympic Games in just one night, winning two medals in the T42 category — for athletes with lower limb deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement.
Thangavelu was just five years old when he lost his right leg. He was playing outside his home when a state transport bus ran over him, crushing his knee. He doesn’t remember the day or date, but he recollects that his mother was wailing.
“We were already poor, and she was the only earning member. The accident made my mother’s life more difficult. She had to take care of a disabled son. Some villagers told us to file a case against the State Transport
Corporation, but nothing worked out. She tried her best to ensure good medical treatment, I remember her pleading with the doctors to fix my leg. I’ll never forget the anguish in her voice,” says Thangavelu, who has a sister and two brothers.
“She was illiterate, but she wanted me to study and get a government job,” he says. Recalling how children would make fun of him after the accident, he says, “Thankfully, I had supportive teachers and they gave me special care. Sometimes, they even paid my fees. The physical education teachers gave me the same encouragement that they gave others. They sent me to district and state paralympic meets from a young age, and I used to win more medals than others,” he says.
His achievements helped him procure admission for a BBA course at AVS College in Salem. And it was in Salem that a chance meeting with Satya Narayana, a Bengaluru-based former national long-distance runner, changed his life.
Satya Narayana was at the 2013 national paralympics championship in Salem, when he saw Thangavelu win the gold in high jump. “I was just there to see how a couple of my wards were doing, and I chanced upon him. I had never seen such sound technique at that age. I walked up to him and asked him if he was interested in shifting to Bengaluru. He told me to ask his mother,” recalls Satya Narayana.
It took some persuasion to convince Saroja, who was worried that it would affect his studies. “I told her to give me a year and he would win an international gold,” says the coach.
So each weekend, and during vacations, Thangavelu would board a Bengaluru-bound train and head to Kanteerava Stadium. “I started training him in Bengaluru because he would have access to world-class facilities and funds. It’s easier to get sponsors. I would make him stay at my home whenever he was in Bengaluru. He was very hard-working and made rapid strides,” he says.
As for Thangavelu, his motivation has always been to see a smile on his mother’s face. “Nothing motivates me more. Before every jump, I visualise her smiling face and that propels me,” he says. Now, all he wants is to see his smiling mother in their two-room house in Periavadamgatti.