Leaping after Mariyappan's Legacy: These two para-athletes from the same Salem College as the Olympic Gold Medalist are gunning for Tokyo 2020

Hailing from the same small college as their dimunitive senior Mariyappan Thangavelu, Mahesh and Dinesh were inspired by his Rio win and are training hard to take their shot at the Paralympics
Mahesh and Dinesh train with all their might | A Raja Chidambaram
Mahesh and Dinesh train with all their might | A Raja Chidambaram

Mariyappan Thangavelu’s story inspired a lot of awe and praise when we won that medal in Rio, almost a whole year ago. Now, a biopic aside, neither do people talk much about the paralympic champion, nor are they inspired by his feats in Brazil. Right?

Not quite.

Two nineteen-year-old differently-abled youths, who have lost their limbs, fought poverty and pain and have learnt to manoeuvre their way through life are inspired by him every single day.They don’t just want to be like him. They want to be him! Meet Dinesh Periasamy and Mahesh, two B Com students from AVS College of Arts And Science, Salem who have decided to aim for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, after drawing inspiration from their now-famous college senior, Mariyappan Thangavelu.

Fields of Gold: Mahesh and Dinesh along with their coach at AVS College in Salem | A Raja Chidambaram 

“Currently, I am in my first year and I had enrolled to earn a degree from an established college. I had no plans to try my hand at sports until I heard about Mariyappan’s win. I could relate to him. I was so motivated to do something that I immediately approached my physical education director, Suresh Kumar and told him that I wanted to start training,” says 19-year-old Dinesh Periasamy, who is training to participate in the men’s long jump category. Hailing from a small town just outside of Salem, he had lost both his parents before he turned seven. He also lost his hands at the age of three in an accident, when a bus ran over him while trying to cross the road. But he has never let that deter him. Raised by his maternal uncle, a farmer, he hopes to become an auditor someday. “I want to achieve both my dreams. Initially, it was difficult, but I try to balance sports and my studies,” smiles Dinesh, whose older brother dropped out of school and is currently a car driver. Dinesh believes that without his college’s financial support, it wouldn’t have been possible to follow his dreams. 

Another aspiring nineteen-year-old, Mahesh (who does not wish to use his father’s name after his because he was abandoned), is also training to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in the men’s 100/200 metres category. “I lost my mother at birth and my father abandoned me soon after. My paternal grandmother raised me,” he says quietly. Mahesh was born differently-abled, but he’s made sure that it hasn’t restricted him. From writing his exams to playing cricket and chess to taking up painting, he’s learned to use his legs for every single way. “I also love dancing. I’m self-taught by watching Raghava Lawrence’s dance videos. He’s my biggest inspiration. If I don’t make it big in sports, I want to become like him,” he says, with a smile. 

For the recent 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, India sent a delegation of 19 competitors to be a part of the games. There were 16 men and three women participating in five sports. The next Games will be held in Tokyo in the year 2020

He’s already won six gold medals when in school at the district level in the men’s 100-metre category. “I couldn’t go further than district level because I had no one to support me then. Now, my college is taking care of my tuition fee, food and accommodation, and I am extremely grateful to them,” he says.  
Both the students have been under the care of the college’s physical education director, Suresh Kumar. “After Mariyappan’s win in the men’s high jump T-42 category at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, it’s a happy sight to see more students in the state getting into sports. Mahesh and Dinesh are extremely motivated to make it big and we intend to support them to follow their dreams. They are now under a strict fitness regime and I feel that a year from now, they’ll be ready to participate in state and national-level events. But there aren’t many such events that are conducted in the country, specifically for para-athletes,” says Suresh, who was also crucial in Mariyappan’s journey. 

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Spurred on by their senior’s success, Mahesh and Dinesh have been training under Elambarithi, District Athletic Coach, Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu for close to seven months now. “It’s very different to train a differently-abled person. We need to support them mentally and emotionally, and sometimes even lend a hand for certain exercises. Their hand-leg coordination is almost nil and that’s one of the most difficult things to train them on. Also, we have to improve their flexibility, and both their upper and lower body strength. The main challenge we face is that we can’t expect them to improve rapidly as we can’t subject them to rigorous training. While a regular athlete takes only two minutes to do an exercise, para-athletes will take ten to fifteen minutes. We need to go with their pace,” he explains. He says that after Mariyappan’s gold medal win, more people are aware of the Paralympic Games.

But it’s not surprising that there aren’t enough facilities like the synthetic track for athletes to train on. Forget facilities. Every morning, these athletes can be seen training amidst busy morning walkers with restricted space at the Mahatma Gandhi Stadium in Salem. “We need sponsors for these students. Currently, Mahesh is wearing shoes that I gave him, but he needs better ones to train more effectively. We can’t depend on their college as they are already supporting them with other expenses,” says Elambarithi.

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“The two of them are dedicated and disciplined, and don’t miss a single day of training. Their passion and determination are as clear as crystal. Also, the management is supporting almost 150 students under the sports quota and it’s because of this that we have so many achievers here. T Natarajan, who is pursuing his MBA in our college, will be seen playing for Kings XI Punjab at this year’s IPL. He also comes from an underprivileged background, with his father working in the powerloom industry and his mother running a roadside food stall,” smiles Suresh Kumar, who’s been working in the Physical Education department for sixteen years. 

Mahesh, who was intently listening throughout, asks us with a sheepish grin, “I have a small request. Is there any way I can meet Raghava Lawrence after this gets published?” 

Film mode: The poster of Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth's upcoming biopic Mariyappan 

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