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Armed for Victory

Joby Mathew has overcome a physical challenge and state apathy to win many a medal in different sports

Written by Shaju Philip | New Delhi | Published: September 8, 2013 10:40:31 pm

Joby Mathew has overcome a physical challenge and state apathy to win many a medal in different sports

The Mathews’ home in Aluva,a suburb of Kochi,is airy and spacious. Except for one cabinet fitted into the wall. It’s spilling over with medals,trophies and certificates. Nevertheless,Joby Mathew tries to fit in another five medals that he won at the World Dwarf Games last month.

As he places the medals,his well-built,powerful biceps look striking against his under-developed legs. But this bodily contrast has come to define 37-year-old Mathew’s story,which is as full of medals — 16 in all — as it is full of determination and courage.

Mathew,who is three feet and five inches tall,was born with a condition called proximal femoral focal deficiency,in which the legs fail to develop. His father passed away when he was five. His mother would carry him on her shoulders from their home,located on the top of a hill (in Adukkam village,Kottayam district),to a bus stop to go to school.

As he grew up,he began to go to school alone. “I would hop 14,500 times on my arms to cover some six kilometres between home and school. I also had to swim through eight streams,” he says. Such daily challenges,though,did not bother Mathew as much as not being able to play football. While other boys kicked and ran around the ball in the school playground,he watched helplessly from the sidelines. “While others walked,I crawled in the classroom,” says Mathew. But he decided to ignore what he did not have,and focus on what he had. He began to wrestle with his arms. “I tried arm wrestling in the classroom when I was in Class II.’’

As years passed,Mathew would arm-wrestle with his friends (none with a physical challenge),and would almost always defeat them. He took part in competitions at the school,district and state levels. But across these levels,Mathew faced challenges. When he was in college and went to a local gymnasium for body building,he got no attention. “Because I am dwarf,they gave me no training,leave alone special care. So,I started exercising by observing others.’’

In 1994,when Mathew was all of 18,he became the national champion in arm wrestling in the general category of contestants. Encouraged by his first-ever national feat,he set his eyes on the international arena. “I decided to participate in an international arm wrestling event. So,I went to the Kerala State Sports Council to seek their support. But an official laughed me off,saying it is difficult for even a normal-sized person to fetch a medal abroad. Then,I approached the Indian Olympic Association for financial assistance,only to learn that arm wrestling was not an Olympic event.”

Disheartened,Mathew learnt to limit his sporting dreams within the country. Between 1994 and 2004,he won the national championship seven times. In this period,he also graduated in law,and did a post-graduation course in political science. Besides,he learnt to play other sports such as badminton,javelin throw,discus throw,and wheelchair fencing.

In 2003,Mathew’s dreams of taking part in an international sports event took off again. He decided to try and represent India in wheelchair fencing,as there was no contestant from other states. He got a wheelchair from the Kerala State Handicapped Development Corporation and started training under coach S Radhakrishnan. “Mathew is a man of grit,but he did not get much official support,’’ says Radhakrishnan. Kerala did not have a paralympics association to recommend him to represent India in wheelchair fencing at the Paralympics.

But then,the proverbial silver lining appeared. In 2005,Mathew got an opportunity to participate in the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Japan. He,however,had no sponsor. A well-wisher in Kochi helped get Mathew’s story published in a newspaper. It was a veiled plea for aid,as it carried Mathew’s phone number. Tamil actor Sarath Kumar happened to read the story. He contacted and met Mathew,and gave him Rs 1 lakh for his travel expenses. But then came another hurdle. The visa application for the 11-member Indian squad,including Mathew,was rejected. Others gave up,except Mathew. He boarded a train to Chennai and went to the Japanese consulate there. “I told the official there about my dream,my struggle to represent India. He cleared my visa. I was the only person from India to represent arm wrestling. No manager or official from India accompanied me,’’ he says.

In Japan,Mathew bagged three bronze medals — two in the general category and another in the challenged category. On his return from Japan,Mathew got a rousing reception in Chennai,where Sarath Kumar received him. But in Kochi,he was “shocked at not a single state government official coming to receive me as a mark of recognition for my feat”.

In 2006 and 2007,Mathew missed the world championship for want of sponsorship. But after he got a job as a legal advisor at Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) in Kochi,his sponsorship woes came to an end. BPCL has since been sponsoring Mathew for all sporting events. Thus,has begun,it seems,a downpour of medals: in 2008,he won a gold and a silver medal at the World Arm Wrestling Championship held in Spain; in 2010,he got a silver in badminton (singles) at the Paralympics World Championship held in Tel Aviv; in 2012,at the World Arm Wrestling Championship held in Spain,he got a gold and two silver medals.

But Mathew’s best run so far happened last month,at the World Dwarf Games held in Michigan,US,where he won five gold medals — in badminton (single and doubles),javelin throw,discus throw and shot put. These are the latest medals that make their way to his crammed cabinet.

Every morning,Mathew,who lives with his wife and four-year-old son,trains at a private gym,and swims for 45 minutes in a river near his home. After returning from work,Mathew plays badminton for an hour. He has also joined the Rifles Club at Kottayam for training to shoot. “I plan to go for a shooting competition this year,” he says.

Mathew says his achievements have not helped him monetarily. In 2008,the state government gave him Rs 1 lakh from the chief minister’s calamity fund. “Was my feat a national calamity?’’ he asks.

But as much as Mathew has learnt to master several sports,he has also learnt to overcome state apathy. He now wants to scale the Everest. “I want to conquer the Everest. I recently attended a mountaineering programme in Shimla.”

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