When Vijayi KP, a retired physical education teacher, watched the men’s marathon at the Rio Olympic Games from her house in Kakkavayal, Wayanad district of Kerala, on Sunday she strained her eyes to spot Gopi Thonakkal, her ‘son’.
Gopi wasn’t in the leading bunch and away from the focus of the cameras for most of the telecast. He eventually finished 25th but for the 58-year-old teacher the army runner was a winner. In his maiden Olympics, Gopi, who first ran a marathon only in January this year, improved his personal best by 55 seconds.
As ‘Vijayi teacher’ puts it, Gopi’s performance (2:15.25) can be appreciated only if one knows his back story.
Gopi lost his father when he was a toddler and he stayed in a per-metric hostel for scheduled caste students. The physical education teacher spotted his natural talent during an athletics meet at a government high school. Vijayi was not only a coach but also treated the boy, who never shirked from training hard, like her son.
“During the school holidays, the hostel would also be shut but to ensure that Gopi’s training did not suffer I asked him to stay at my house. I could ensure that he had a proper diet and monitored his training. The bond between us grew and soon he was part of the family,” Vijayi says.
Training Gopi and watching him go from strength to strength also helped Vijayi to keep her spirits up when she was fighting a battle of her own. Vijayi’s son Vishnu, was a Cerebral palsy patient and was paralyzed. Her husband was bedridden for years following a spinal chord injury.
Her son passed away five years ago and her husband two years later. The joy of seeing Gopi progress from a district champion in Wayanad to an elite athlete at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, helped Vijayi tide over personal loss.
Gopi too felt the pain as he was close to Vishnu. “After joining the army, when he used to come back home, he would straight away go to Vishnu’s bedside and hug him and talk to him. We don’t know if Vishnu could hear what we said to him. But Gopi believed he could. When I saw him running the marathon at the Rio Olympics, I was flooded with the memories of Gopi and Vishnu. I felt like I was watching my very own son representing the country,” Vijayi says.
His coach believes the 27-year-old is capable of winning an international medal because he only started running marathons recently. At the Mumbai Marathon in January, Gopi, a 5,000 metre and 10,000 metre specialist, was the pace-setter for Nitender Singh Rawat and was expected to drop down the order after the 30 kilometre mark in the 42.1 kilometre race.
However, Gopi didn’t tire and finished second behind Rawat. Impressively, in his first ever marathon, he met the Olympic Qualifying standard. At Rio, Gopi finished ahead of the Rawat, the national record holder, and Kheta Ram, the third track and field athlete to qualify for the marathon from India. Vijayi spoke to Gopi on Monday, a day after the marathon.
“He told me that he felt he could have done better but I know he tried his best. There is no question of Gopi ever doing anything half-halfheartedly. He would have given it his all. He always has and that is how he reached the Rio Olympics,” Vijayi said.
Over the phone, Vijayi’s voice is that of a mother who is proud of her son.