Mariyappan Thangavelu made history in Rio , winning India’s first gold medal in the high jump at the Paralympics on Friday. Thangavelu jumped 1.89 metres in the T42 high jump event to win gold while Varun Singh Bhati jumped a personal best of 1.86 metres to win bronze.
The 21-year-old Thangavelu, who hails from Salem district in Tamil Nadu, qualified for Rio by achieving the ‘A’ Qualification mark, clearing 1.78 metres at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Grand Prix event in Tunisia earlier this year. The qualification standard was 1.60 metres, and he was one of the favourites for a medal in Rio.
Thangavelu may have become a world beater in high jump now but, till a few years back, he just wanted to play volleyball. This was when he was in school.
However, his school physical education teacher spotted the youngster’s natural gift to jump while playing volleyball and convinced him to take up high jump. Thangavelu was so natural that in his first competition, a school-level championship while he was 14, he finished second competing against able-bodied athletes.
Thangavelu was five when an accident in his village of Periavadagampatti, 50km from Salem, left him with a permanent disability. He was commuting to school when a bus, swerving out of control, ran over his right leg, crushing it below the knee. His mother, who sells vegetables to make a living, had to take a loan of Rs 3 lakh for her son’s treatment. The family has been struggling to repay the loan ever since.
The story of adversity continued till Thangavelu’s current coach, Satyanarayana, spotted him during the National para-athletics championship in 2013. A year later, the coach convinced Thangavelu to shift to Bengaluru for training and life changed. Satyanarayana was also the coach of Girisha Nagarajegowda, who won silver in the high jump F-42 event at the London Paralympics in 2012.
In his first year of senior competition in 2015, Thangavelu became the world No. 1 in the T-42 high jump event. In the T-42 category, athletes with impairment in lower limb, affected by limb deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement, take part.
Thangavelu has joined an elite list of Indian para-athletes, who have won gold at the Games. Swimmer Murlikant Petkar won India’s first gold medal at the Heidelberg Paralympics in 1972 while javelin thrower Devendra Jhajharia won gold in Athens 2004. Jhajharia is competing in Rio this time as well.