The 25-year-old spoke about his journey so far and his preparation for the upcoming 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.
Confidence and optimism are two words that define Mariyappan Thangavelu. Born to a humble family in Salem, a small town in the heartland of Tamil Nadu, the high-jumper made history at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. He became only the third Indian Paralympian to clinch gold at the event.
Praise and adulation followed his historic achievement. Mariyappan received the Arjuna Award in 2017. He was also conferred the Padma Shri – the fourth-highest civilian honour in India the same year, at the age of 22. A deserved crowning moment for what is certainly an inspiring journey that is not yet done by any means.
In an exclusive conversation with Khel Now, the Paralympian speaks about his career path and his future goals.
A tough start
Mariyappan Thangavelu suffered a permanent disability following a freak accident. A drunk bus driver ran over his leg when he was 7-years-old. But, like his craft, Mariyappan has leapt over all hurdles with determination and grit. Despite all his achievements, Mariyappan recounts his tale with humility.
Speaking of his early days, Mariyappan replied, “I had an interest in sports from a young age. I played volleyball in school and it was in Class 7 when I switched to high jumping. Then, I won the gold medal in the junior events. From there, I went to the junior and senior national events where I won gold medals. In 2011, I went to the National Para Championships where I performed well. Then in 2012, I got recommended as a para-athlete.
“My mother used to work in the forests and sell vegetables. So me, my brother and sister would work with her when needed. At that time, we used to watch the Olympics. I felt disappointed when India wouldn’t win medals in the Olympics and decided that I have to win a medal for India someday. That dream came true in 2016,” recalled Mariyappan Thangavelu.
Impact of coach Satyanarayana
Mariyappan Thangavelu credits his coach Satyanarayana who changed his life by taking him under his tutelage. The coach took Mariyappan into his fold and brought him down to the Gyana Bharati SAI Sports Complex in Bengaluru to mentor the raw talent.
“When my coach Satyanarayana came in, my life changed a lot. Till then, I would just play and that would be it. But, no one really prepared me the way he did. He got me to Bengaluru and helped me win the medals. When he took me to Bengaluru, he told my family that I will win a medal soon enough and it happened as he predicted.
“When I started training under him, I understood what ‘training’ actually meant. After coming to Bengaluru, I really understood the importance of working out and ensuring that I train properly. It was difficult at the start. I used to come back home (to Salem) every 2-3 days as I missed my family. But, things slowly got better for me and that’s when I really started to enjoy working with him,” said Mariyappan Thangavelu.
At the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Mariyappan Thangavelu fulfilled his lifelong dream. He made history by clinching gold in the Men’s T-42 high jump event with a leap of 1.89m.
He recounted his experience going into the arena for the final event as if it were yesterday. “It was nerve-wracking. When I entered the arena, I was really scared. My legs were trembling until I went in, finished my jump and returned,” said the 25-year old.
“But, when I got to know that I won (the gold medal), it dawned on me. It was a totally different feeling. The feeling of having realized my dream of winning a medal for India was something else,” he recalls.
It was a life-changing leap for the then 21-year old and so it was back home in Salem. As the nation celebrated his monumental achievement, it was a tale of deserved redemption for the trials and tribulations of his family.
“Everyone was overjoyed. They recognized that one of their own has gone on and won a gold medal in an Olympic event. My mother was very emotional and her joy knew no bounds. She blessed me and was extremely proud,” said an emotional Maryappan Thangavelu.
An inspiration to many
His achievement combined with his awe-inspiring journey continues to propel a new generation of athletes and para-athletes bringing pride to the nation.
Speaking about the ramifications of his achievement, Mariyappan Thangavelu replied, “I believe my victory gave belief to a lot of people that they too can come out and win. Seeing me win the gold for India, a lot more athletes and sportspersons are coming out. Knowing that my victory has inspired them is something that I’m very proud of.”
Mariyappan Thangavelu mentioned his desire to start a sports academy to develop budding talents for the nation. He said, “I want to start a sports academy to develop young kids who come from villages in Tamil Nadu. I think more kids from these parts should take up sports. I want them to dream and develop them to win medals for India like me.” Mariyappan Thangavelu was also offered a coach’s role by the Sports Authority of India to mentor the next generation of young stars.
Preparation for the 2021 Paralympics
Despite fulfilling his dream in 2016, it is certainly not the end by any distance for Mariyappan Thangavelu. The 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo is another chance to emulate his feat from five years ago.
Thangavelu underwent surgery in 2018 on his right leg. Despite doctors’ advice, three months later, he participated at the 2018 Asian Para Games and won bronze with a leap of 1.67m. Thangavelu also won bronze at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championship with a leap of 1.80 m.
Not one to rest on his laurels, the 25-year-old is targeting another gold medal. When asked about his preparation, an upbeat Mariyappan replied, “This time, I’m confident that I’ll win the gold medal and also break the world record. I’m not trying anything different. I just want to continue the same things that I’m currently doing and take them to the next level.”