CHENNAI: When he was barely a teen, pursuing sport was last thing in his mind. His existential angst forced him to the doors of despair and his entire family of five was even contemplating suicide. His mother and two brothers and one sister were abandoned by his father some years ago, which he refused to even recollect, and there was hardly any money to feed. In a freak accident as a five-year-old his right leg was crushed by a State-owned bus — the case is still pending in a local court — making him a para-athlete. One thing that kept him going was his love for family and sport.
As T Mariyappan stood on the podium to get his gold in high jump at the Paralympics in Rio, a myriad of images flashed across his mind. There were images of his mother taking up different menial jobs to feed the family; of his ramshackle hut in an obscure village of Tamil Nadu; his struggle to cope with numerous jeers and taunts because of his mangled right foot that used to make him limp and other impediments any non-disabled human being would crumble under. Not Mariyappan. He is made of a sterner stuff. Struggles have hardened his heart and soul. There is no pain that would crush him anymore. He has endured enough and life now on will take a new turn. This time for better. What more he doesn’t want anyone to see him as a person with disability.
“I have suffered enough and there’s no pain that can trouble me anymore,” Mariyappan told Express from Rio. His voice was quivering with excitement. With mother’s earnings not more than `300 per day, Mariyappan used to work as a daily wage labourer during school holidays and weekends to support his family. “To win this medal is a miracle. I still remember when we (the family) wanted to commit suicide because we were not able to sustain ourselves. It was a moment of extreme despair. But we gathered ourselves and my mother started supporting with whatever job she could get.” First as a labourer in a brick kiln and now a vegetable vendor, his mother Saroja has been his greatest pillar of strength. “She is everything to me.”
Mariyappan’s tryst with sport, however, was not smooth. Perhaps a natural athlete he used to compete with non-disabled men in volleyball. He even competed with non-disabled boys during school and inter-district meets. He has won a few medals. It was not until he was in 11th standard, that he knew he could excel in para athletics. “I went to nationals for the first time and I got gold,” he said.
Having practised barefoot in Salem, he had to adjust quickly to shoes on synthetic tracks, which took him six months. “The coaches and officials thought I would do something. In 2012, I was selected to compete at the London Paralympic Games after clearing 1.75m in a trial in Bengaluru. I desperately wanted to make it to London, but had problems in getting passport. I’d no birth certificate and I thought that’s how life is. If that was worse, to witness someone taking gold at London with 1.74 left me devastated. I kept telling myself, this is my medal. I was down for a bit, but family and coach supported me a great deal,” he said.
(Inputs from M Sabari and G Rajasekaran in Salem)