In May this year, Mariyappan Thangavelu said during an interview, “It’s not beyond me.” India’s rising star in para-athletics had just cleared a distance of 1.78m in the men’s high jump T42 event at the IPC Grand Prix in Tunisia. So what was not beyond him? A gold at the Paralympics, he said.
Three months later Thangavelu has showed the country what walking the talk is supposed to look like.
Not only is he the first athlete to bag a gold in this year’s Paralympics, he is also the first Indian high jumper to win a gold in the history of Paralympics.
According to NDTV, ‘T-42 is a disability sport classification for differently-abled track and field athletes with single ‘above the knee’ amputations or a disability that is comparable’.
Born in a small village of Periavadagampatti, 50km from Salem, in Tamil Nadu, Mariyappan’s brush with unpredictability of life, occurred at a tender age of five. Fifteen years ago, Mariyappan was on his way to school in his village, when he met with a terrifying accident. A bus took a wrong turn, spun out of control and hit the five-year-old, running over his right leg and crushing it in process.
Later, when he was old enough to comprehend the tragedy that had hit him, he was told that the driver of the bus was drunk. However, that information did nothing to comfort him or ease the difficult road that lay ahead of him. In an interview to The Hindu, Mariyappan said, “It doesn’t matter. My right leg is now stunted — it is still a five-year-old’s leg; it has never grown or healed.”
A report on Sportskeeda states that Mariyappan’s mother had then taken a loan of Rs 3 lakh to pay for his treatment. Years later, the vegetable vendor is still repaying the money.
The same article traces Mariyappan’s interest in sports back to his physical education teacher, who encouraged him to take up athletics and nurtured his interest in high jump. He also played volleyball.
“His coach Satyanarayana spotted him at the National Para-Athletics Championship when he was just 18. After rigorous training in Bengaluru, he became the World Number 1 in 2015, his first year of senior-level competition,” Sportskeeda reports.
His first competitive event was when he was 14 years old and participated in an athletics meet with other able-bodied students. He finished second.
“At first, my classmates didn’t believe I could do it. But once I made that first jump, they were all excited. After that day, a lot of people came to support me whenever I competed in the district,” he told The Hindu.