It was exactly two years ago, when I first came to know about the existence of para-high jumping in India. The country traditionally has always had a rich history in Para-athletic field events, but high jumping has specifically seen a meteoric rise, ever since Girisha Nagarajegowda's silver medal at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Today, the sport has eclipsed all possible records and milestones set by athletes from India.
For the first time in an Olympic or Paralympic event, individual Indian athletes have won two medals in the same event, an unheard of stat in the nation's century-long Olympic history. One man who has been central to this change is Coach Satyanarayana. No, he is not a household name, but he is someone who knows how to consistently produce Paralympic medallists. A formula even our able-bodied sportspersons are struggling to decipher.
My knowledge about para-athletics coincided with the career initiation of a Paralympic gold medallist, when Satyanarayana spotted Mariyappan at the National Junior Championship. One glance was enough to convince the Karnataka-based coach to take an 18-year old Mariyappan under his wing.
About three months later, my phone buzzed at work, it was Satyapal Singh, India's most successful para-athletics coach. He said, “Yaar, ek ladka aaya hai, fit hai, lagta hai aage medal layega (A new kid has come in High Jump, seems fit, could win a medal in the future).”
If India's most successful coach thinks a kid can win a medal, you follow up on it at any cost. Mariyappan jumped a staggering 1.89 m, skipping on one leg during the entire process to win gold today. Two years ago, he wasn't even jumping 1.75 m. He was as rough a diamond as they come. Apart from a disciplined regime, there was a different motivation driving this young kid, something I knew was there, but couldn't figure out till much later.
If you think India's victory here was a one-off, think again. Heading into this event, all three Indians, incidentally students of Satyanarayana, were ranked 1, 2 and 3. The first time India headed into a competitive international multi-sport event occupying all three top spots.
Varun Bhati went onto win the bronze, and Sharad Kumar finished sixth, but Mariyappan justified his world number 1 ranking to pull off a personal best of 1.89 m. His previous best of 1.86 m, which was the strongest mark in the field was better by Varun and American Sam Grewe, hence the 21-year old dug deep pull the final jump out of the bag.
Son of a vegetable seller, who wouldn’t take no for an answer
It was not until two weeks ago that I finally came to know about Mariyappan's unrelenting motivation to win in Rio. Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “I might be world number 1, but life is tough for me back home. My mom works as a vegetable seller back in my village's market and it's getting increasingly difficult for me to pay my loan. If I don't medal in Rio, then it just might be the end of the road for me. I don't have any money and I have to start supporting my mother.”
More than his compatriots, this was Mariyappan's only chance. He severely damaged his right leg at the age of 5, when a bus went dangerously off the road. The price of the operation was Rs 3 lakhs, his mother mortgaged the house in order to pay for medical treatment. An amount that they are yet to return to the bank.
Born in Periavadamgatti village, around 50 km from a Tamil Nadu district named Salem, Mariyappan had humble beginnings. However, the accident took a financial toll on the family. He said, “Till date I have earned approximately Rs 0 through my jumping, even when I won the IPC Grand Prix event, I didn't get anything. My mother makes a total of Rs 5,000 a month, do you think a bank loan can be paid off at that amount? I need to win this because the prize money will help me clear the loan and also help me give my mother a comfortable life something that she deserves.”
Mariyappan will now pocket a cool Rs 75 lakhs, which will finally cover his medical loan. With the extra money, he is planning to build a proper house for his family and also invest in foreign exposure, in an attempt to break the world record.
After knowing him for a year or so, Mariyappan finally revealed why he seemed so much more motivated than his compatriots. The answer was simple, survival! If he didn't win a medal in Rio, he would essentially have to quit the sport, due to a lack of funds. He added, “This year was my standout year, I came face to face against the world's finest and beat them, in the biggest competitions. However, I somehow came out of it with a win. I though qualification would give me something, so that I could send it back home, but it isn't the case. For me it's always been about paying loan and getting a government job, being honest the real problem is I don't know how to do anything else.”
Zero funding, lack of media coverage
It's one hour after the medal ceremony, Mariyappan's name has finally reached all mainstream media outlets. With channels flashing the 'what abled bodied couldn't, differently bodied did,' I thought he wouldn't pick up my call, but to my surprise, he did.
I heard a voice weeping inconsolably on the other side. After a five second gap, Mariyappan spoke in broken hindi, “We did it, I really want to know how mom reacted, did she watch me on TV? Please tell her from my side, that we can now live a more comfortable life. I'm sure India will embrace our achievements, and I request everyone to now take para-sports seriously. We train 24/7, it's taken lots of sacrifices from my family to help me reach here. Now it's my turn to give back to them.”
Coach Satyanarayana had a simple explanation about Mariyappan's success. He said, “When you know there is no other option, because you don't know how to do anything else and that your sole source of survival will by doing this, you end up getting it at any cost. Apart from glory, it was about living for him and combine that with skill, anything is possible. Even if you just have one leg.”
However, this raises the question, why was a future Paralympic medallist ignored to the extent that he didn't receive a single penny of financial support? Why is he still in such a condition that his livelihood is driving him to win a medal?
In the five minute conversation, post his victory, he said, “My biggest relief is that I can unburden my mother from all the pain, that was my goal. Now that the loan will be taken care of, I want the country to know and I hope you will tell them that I will continue to win medals. But all I request you is a bit of your time. If you can sit and watch an even of India's for even half n hour we all will be obliged.”
What the Rio able-bodied 120 strong contingent couldn't do in their entire tenure, the Paralympic contingent pulled off in two days.
Regardless of the result, now India has three Paralympic individual gold medallists as compared to 1 in able-bodied. No media coverage, no financial support, it took a prodigal athlete to initiate his survival instinct to medal. If the smaller Paralympic contingent is doing better than our able-bodied one, they deserve the respect of being broadcasted across the country.