The boy with the golden toe — Mariyappan Thangavelu

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On the evening of September 10, 2016, when Mariyappan Thangavelu leaped 1.86 metres in the men’s high jump T-42 event at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, he was making the highest jump of his life in more ways than one.

It was a leap of faith that would take him from destitution and deprivation to a world of opportunities and optimism. The gold medal that 21-year-old Mariyappan won at the event has turned out to be the proverbial silver lining of his life. Thus, when he says that the only way life has changed for him now is that he cannot walk around bindas on the streets, that people recognise him, he is just being modest.
It is his enterprising coach Satyanarayana who hits the bull’s eye on how life has changed for Mariyappan after his great feat. He says,

“Earlier, Mariyappan was dependant on his family because of his disability. Now, his family is dependant on him.”

The Jayalalitha government in Tamil Nadu awarded him Rs 2 crore after his victory. He was similarly feted by various other government bodies and corporates, and as his coach says, he is now a crorepati. He reportedly donated Rs 30 lakh from his prize money to his school.

One of five children born in a poor home in a village called Periavadagampatti in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district, Mariyappan did not have much going for him. The poverty at home was such that his father deserted them, leaving Mariyappan’s mother, Saroja, to fend for the family alone.
A single mother, she worked as a daily wage earner transporting bricks on her head. She later moved on to selling flowers and vegetables. When he was five years old, Mariyappan met with an accident while walking to school. A drunk bus driver crushed his right leg below the knee, leaving it stunted. In an earlier interview with The Hindu, he had said, “It is still a five-year-old’s leg. It has never grown or healed.”
His mother raised around Rs 3 lakh for her son’s treatment singlehandedly.
Not one to miss an ‘earning day’, his mother was reportedly reluctant to watch her son’s Olympics performance on television. Her other children forced her to stay back and join the rest of the village to watch the event. As the neighbourhood erupted in applause, she could not contain her joy.
The first thing that Mariyappan did after he won the gold was to call his mother. “She was very happy and started to cry,” he says, as he patiently answers a barrage of questions on the sidelines of the just-concluded India Inclusion Summit in Bengaluru.
From head to toe
A man of few words, the shy and modest Mariyappan is happy to let his coach Satyanarayana do most of the talking. “Don’t be fooled by his demeanour,” jokes his coach, adding, “no shy person can become a sportsperson.” He turns towards Mariyappan, who is grinning with his head down, his pearly white teeth lighting up his face, and asks him, “Are you shy or naughty?” He answers softly in Tamil, “Sadhu (blameless/innocent),” and the room fills with laughter.

Clad in Indian jersey and jeans, Mariyappan sits patiently, soaking in all the adulation on the stage of the India Inclusion Summit.
As celebrated speed painter Vilas Nayak paints Mariyappan’s portrait on stage to the beats of Bollywood’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag song, the applause from the audience reaches a crescendo as he applies the finishing touches to the gold and Tricolour. And it is in moments like these when you know all that really matters in life is how you turn things to your advantage, even when you feel there’s not much hope.

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