Published: 26th April 2017
Meet Saji Valassery, the man who's training kids and people with disabilities in Kerala to swim in turbulent rivers, without charging a cent
This swimming coach doesn't have national swimming credentials, a large ego or a swimming pool that he promotes. He's teaching kids to swim against the tide in the rivers of Kerala and it's free
It's the first day of swimming lessons for sisters Angel (5) and Anna (8) under coach Saji
This is what the average day at the summer swimming camp
Broad strokes begin at home
Saji's first students were his own kids, Merin and Jerin. Back in 2011, when the kids turned nine and fifteen respectively, they swam across the widest part of the Aluva river, a 650
In safe hands: Saji trains a young girl to keep her body afloat | K Shijith
The next year, 11 kids who trained under Saji swam the same stretch. In 2013, the number of students who undertook the swimming challenge rose to 38, and this time the youngest in the bunch was 7-year-old Shervin Ajay. In the following years, the numbers rose to 76 and 75. Most of these feats were achieved during strong undercurrents and turbulent weather — a testament to the fact that these kids could swim against the tide. Literally.
May the power be with you
Saji believes taming the currents and being an expert swimmer empowers a person.This lies at the heart of his resolve to make more swimmers out of the people around him. Physical handicaps, he says, should never hold anyone back from venturing into the water.
Four years into training, the parents of Krishna, a 7-year old girl with neurological ailments, approached Saji in a last ditch attempt to help. A physiotherapist had suggested that Krishna
try swimming as a way to strengthen her body muscles. Saji trained her for little over 50 days and the girl covered 200 meters in 25 minutes. A great achievement, considering Krishna could barely walk
In 2015, a sprightly youngster named Navaneeth approached Saji for training. He was blind. And yet, Navaneeth was not going to let his blindness stop him from doing anything. "Training him was tough as you can't give him visual cues and he kept wandering off from the set path. I swam in front and shouted directions. But, he was exceptional as even with the handicap he swam the stretch in 12 minutes," says a visibly proud Saji. The coach wanted Navaneeth to swim across the Vembanad lake, but being busy with cricket, he has put it on the back burner.
More recently, Radhakrishnan, a government clerk with a deformed right hand, surprised even Saji with his grit and strength of will. "Radhakrishnan had accompanied someone to my classes. He approached me one day and said he wants to swim. I was skeptical as adults are tougher to train as they are easily overcome by fear. Moreover, he had just one hand. I said a reluctant yes hoping he would be discouraged by it. But, from the next day he was here as early as 5.30 am." Radhakrishnan, a clerk at the Tehsildar's office, completed the feat with his superiors including the district collector and sub collector of Ernakulam as witnesses.
Swimming in his trunks... and genes
Saji attributes his swimming skills to his father, V Thomas Mani. "He was with the British Indian Army and had won the Madras Swimming Championship in 1946. He was my trainer." Even though an expert swimmer and an accomplished coach, Saji, however, has not participated in any swimming competitions. "I swam for fun and it did not occur to me to join championships."
What plans going forward? "I want to make as many people as I can swim. That's my goal." Sounds like he means it, as he does all the coaching free of cost.