KP Thomas: The first-ever PE instructor to win the Dronacharyahttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/kp-thomas-the-firstever-pe-instructor-to-win-the-dronacharya/

KP Thomas: The first-ever PE instructor to win the Dronacharya

Thomas retired 13 years ago,but he’s still at the ground most mornings.

At a Vannappuram school yard,the breeding ground of several elite Indian athletes,Karthik Krishnaswamy traces the life and times of KP Thomas,the first-ever PE instructor to win the Dronacharya. Six rows of children measure out their single-arm distances at the edge of the playground. A few grin self-consciously at the wide-angle lens that the photographer trains on them,but the rest seem oblivious to its presence. This is less attention than they’re used to getting. The last two weeks have seen plenty of OB vans to-ing and fro-ing at the gate outside SNM High School,Vannappuram,Kerala.

“Yesterday,” says Rajas Thomas,the school’s physical education instructor,“a news channel came here to do a day-in-the-life story.”

The subject of that story is his father KP Thomas who,in a few days,will become the first ever PE instructor to win the Dronacharya award. Between 1979 and 2005,while training athletes at CKM High School in Koruthode,90km south of Vannappuram,Thomas mentored CS Muralidharan,Molly Chacko,Jincy Philip,Anju Bobby George and Joseph Abraham,all of whom went on to win athletics medals of various hues at the World or Asian level. During that period,CKM went through an unbroken 16-year run of winning the Kerala State School Athletics Championships.

Thomas retired 13 years ago,leaving his son officially in charge,but he’s still at the ground most mornings. On this morning,he disperses the children to warm up. They form a circle around the perimeter of the ground.

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All of Thomas’s children have inherited his aptitude for coaching. His older daughter Raji Sojan remains at CKM,Koruthode,where she teaches mathematics,while his younger daughter Rajni Prince — who used to be a national-level javelin thrower — is a PE instructor at Nirmala Public School,Moovattupuzha. Rajas,formerly a 400m hurdler employed by the Punjab Police,has gone from assisting his father to taking over most of his duties.

The ground is at a lower level than the paved area on which the school buildings sit. You descend three steep stone steps to get to it. It has no running track. Some of the athletes,who have stripped down to their training vests to perform their floor stretches,sit on their T-shirts to minimise the effect of protuberant bits of rock in its laterite soil.

Making do

“It’s less than 200m,” says Rajas,drawing a circle in the air. “We can’t really run proper sprint distances. And for hurdlers,we place eight hurdles across the ground,and they train like that. A month before any competition,we take them to a ground in Thodupuzha,which is 20km from here,where they can practice on a proper track.” The ground at their old school in Koruthode was quite similar,he says. “We’ve never really had very good facilities.” But the Thomases have always found ways to make up for that.

“On Saturdays and Sundays we would go for treks into the hills,” says Anju Bobby George,who started training with him in the late 80s. “He would take us to tribal settlements and they would cook for us. We would not mind trekking long distances because for us children it was an adventure. On the way we would pluck fruits and berries and eat them. We would also regularly swim in a nearby stream. We realised,as we started competing at the state and national level,that the treks and swimming had also been part of our training. It not only gave us a break from the routine athletics training but also toned our bodies and helped us build strength and stamina from a very young age.”

Anju’s arrival at Koruthode from Changanassery,along with four other hopefuls and her father KT Markose,represented a defining moment in Thomas’s career. At the time,the school in Koruthode didn’t have any residential facilities. “Since we were not locals,Thomas sir told us it would be difficult for him to accommodate us,” says Anju. “My father asked the local church pastor what to do and he was able to convince Thomas sir that he should take us under his wing. An additional room was constructed in Thomas sir’s house and our parents also contributed to the cost of building it. We began staying there,and eating the food that Thomas sir’s wife would cook for us.”

At home

From there on,the residential system became central to Thomas’s way of coaching,and evolved as the years rolled on. “We grow our own vegetables here. Those are brinjal,” he says,pointing to bags of soil lined up near the hostel building,with wispy shoots just beginning to peek over their tops. “We also grow tapioca,bananas,yam,cabbage and cauliflower.”

Rajas adds that the hostel has a cow for their dairy needs. “The children help us grow the vegetables,” he says. “We stay with them,eat with them,and eat the same food they eat. This is the same gurukul system that the original Dronacharya had. It was just like this at Koruthode too.”

Not long after he’s said this,a scene straight out of a Mahabharata-era gurukul plays itself out. A boy in a Royal Challengers Bangalore jersey hands him a pair of shoes and bends to touch his feet. “He’s going to wear his first pair of spikes,” Rajas says.

Those spikes have just signed up for a lot of hard work,and no instant rewards. “Joseph Abraham was in fifth standard when he first joined,” says Rajas. “It was only when he was in the tenth standard that he first took part in the Kerala state schools meet,because they only allow each school to send two participants per discipline. For five years,there were always two 400m hurdlers above him in our school. But still,he didn’t miss a single day of practice.”

Thomas continues the story. “When he came back from the Asian Games (2010,Guangzhou),he gave me the gold medal,” he says. “I told him to put it around his mother’s neck. Even when he wasn’t getting a chance to participate in meets,she kept encouraging him to continue. Many parents may have wondered whether there was a point to it at all.”

A group of hurdlers,who no doubt idolise Abraham,now walk with exaggeratedly long strides between hurdles,all the while consulting a measuring tape. Once they begin,Thomas points out a tall,lithe girl with an effortlessly graceful leap. “That’s TS Arya,” he says. “She’s going to take part in the School Asiad in Malaysia next month. She was a jumper when she first came here. I told her to switch to hurdles.”

Crossing over

Such tales are commonplace. Anju,for instance,ran the 100m hurdles and the 4x100m relay at her first National School Games. It was after Thomas suggested it that she became a long jumper. “It’s god-given,” he says,when asked where the eye for talent comes from.

Other,more earthly forces also played their part,such as those that shaped Thomas during his 16 years in the army. The story of those years begins in 1963,at a well in the courtyard of St. Sebastian School in Purappuzha in Idukki (Vannappuram is located in the same district). The then 17-year-old Thomas,who is the 11th of 12 brothers — one of whom is Shiny Wilson’s father — and one of 16 siblings in all,is about to perform one of his daily rituals.

“Every evening,as soon as the school bell rang,I would run to the well to drink water. Mr. Matthew,my Malayalam teacher,saw me run one day,and took me to the ground in Kollam,where he told me to run trials for the 100m,200m and 400m. I won all three races. Military recruitment was happening there. The officer asked me if I want to join? I said ‘sure.’”

Posted in Alwar,Rajasthan,Thomas persuaded a subedar,also named Thomas — the first Malayali he found there — to let him try out for the inter-battalion meet. His battalion had already chosen two 100m runners. Thomas was made to compete against the third and fourth-best sprinters.

“At the 50m mark,I couldn’t even hear my feet,” Thomas says. “I beat them by 15m. They made me run against number one and two. I beat them by 10m. Within six months,I was the best sprinter in the entire Services.”

Thomas absorbed lessons from all his coaches at the army. “Whatever I am now is because of them,especially my first coach Joginder Saini,” he says. “After that,we had one Mr. Babar,who would chew paan while watching us. He would say,after this many steps,you are short by this many metres,and then hit me.”

Thomas imbibed Mr. Babar’s attention to detail,but not his penchant for violence. “I’ve never lifted a stick,” he says. “After a race,whose back do I pat first? It’s the child who came fifth or seventh. I tell them,‘you’ll win next year,don’t worry.’”

By the late 70s,Thomas had gone through three levels of the Army Physical Training Corps’ (APTC) training courses — “I came first in each one of them,” he says — and had all the qualifications to train army athletes. But this wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wanted to train children. And so,in 1979,he emerged from the Lakshmibai National Institute of Physical Education (Gwalior) with a Master of Physical Education degree.

“It was like writing my tenth standard exam after finishing my twelfth standard,” says Thomas.

A recently published biography of Thomas in a Malayalam magazine says that his first school posting was in a village in north Kerala. Finding no ground in the school,Thomas asked the principal where he expected him to train athletes. On being told to collect his salary and not ask any questions,Thomas resigned,and went to Koruthode. He wasn’t impressed by the size of the ground there,but decided this was probably the most he would get to work with.

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He’s managed to squeeze far more out of it than he would have ever imagined,but he deflects the credit for it. “The Dronacharya award is purely the result of the sweat that my students have spilled.”