Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021: High Jumper Mariyappan Thangavelu's Leap of Faith
2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games: Rio Paralympics gold medallist aiming for gold, world record in Tokyo
One can't help but draw parallels between the life stories of the former president of India, the late great APJ Abdul Kalam, and Rio Paralympic gold medallist Mariyappan Thangavelu. Kalam started his life as a newspaper hawker when he was a kid and went on to become the Missile Man of India before serving as the 11th president of the country. Mariyappan, too, started as a newspaper hawker and went on to win the men's high jump gold at the Rio Paralympics before being bestowed with the prestigious Khel Ratna Award in 2020. Two inspirational stories of two inspirational men who fought against all odds to achieve success.
With Kalam watching from above, Mariyappan will once again have the opportunity to ensure the Indian anthem rings out loud in Tokyo. But before that, he has the honour and responsibility of being India's flagbearer at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
A Tough Beginning
The 26-year-old Mariyappan, hailing from Salem district in Tamil Nadu, suffered an accident at the age of five when a bus crushed his right leg below the knee. As a result, he was left with stunted growth and permanent disability in his leg.
However, that wasn't the only challenge he had to face. His father reportedly abandoned the family when he was young, leaving his mother as the sole bread earner. Yet, despite all the challenges and odds stacked against him, he did not give up. From 2012 to 2015, Mariyappan worked as a newspaper hawker in the morning and a daily wage labourer at construction sites during the day to support his mother run the family.
"These three years, I would walk 2 to 3 km every morning from my house to deliver newspapers to other houses. After that, I will go to construction sites. In total, I used to get Rs 200 per day. I had to do that to support my mother, who also worked as a daily wage labourer as well as a vegetable-seller," he had told PTI in 2020.
Mariyappan was introduced to high jump in school when his school physical education instructor encouraged him to try high jump. In 2013, when he was 18, Thangavelu participated in the National Para-athletics Championships, where coach R Satyanarayana spotted his talent and potential as a future medal-winning para-athlete.
Two years later, Satyanarayana, who is also his current coach, took him to Sports Authority of India's (SAI) centre in Bengaluru, and the rest was history.
A Gold at the Rio Paralympics
Mariyappan won a gold medal in the T-42 high jump category at the Rio Paralympics with his personal best leap of 1.89m. Several financial rewards followed, improving the family's financial status, also allowing him to buy a piece of land. He was bestowed with the Padma Shri Award and the Arjuna Award in 2017.
Soon, a downturn came in his life when he suffered an ankle injury on his right leg and had to undergo surgery in 2018. However, that was soon followed by some good news. SAI made him a coach, giving him a Group A post.
"My family is much better now financially. I am now a SAI coach, and I am under TOP Scheme also. I am not facing any issue as far as my training is concerned," he had said.
Mariyappan, who also won a bronze medal at the 2018 Para-Asian Games in Jakarta, qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics by winning a bronze medal in the IPC World Athletics Championships in Dubai in 2019.
In 2020, he was honoured with the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award, India's highest sporting honour and became the second recipient from the state after Viswanathan Anand.
While the pandemic forced him to stay indoors for a majority of the year, he kept himself in shape with home-based workouts and training at a nearby school.
Inspired by Neeraj Chopra, Mariyappan Wants a Gold and a World Record
India had won four medals at the Rio Paralympics: two gold, one silver and one bronze. With the country sending its largest-ever contingent to Tokyo Paralympics, from 24 August to 5 September, with 54 athletes in nine sport disciplines, Mariyappan feels that the number will go up. His personal target is to win another gold and create a world record by clearing the two-metre mark. The current world record in T-42 high jump stands at 1.96m.
Mariyappan knows the country expects a medal from him. However, that hasn't perturbed him. Inspired by Neeraj Chopra's historic gold at the Tokyo Olympics, he wants to return with nothing but gold.
While interacting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, the awe-inspiring Mariyappan signed off with an inspirational message for all.
"I suffered an accident at a small age, but I did not let that deter me. I have been consistently looking to perform from 2011 onwards and wish to make the country proud once again in Tokyo. I want to tell every athlete to never give up."
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