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30 Under 30: Paralympian Mariyappan Thangavelu has leapt into the big league

Kunal Purandare
Published: Feb 16, 2017 07:27:37 AM IST
Updated: Feb 10, 2017 05:07:15 PM IST

30 Under 30: Paralympian Mariyappan Thangavelu has leapt into the big league Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

Mariyappan Thangavelu | 21
High Jumper
Category: Sports

The morning after Mariyappan Thangavelu won a gold medal in the T42 high jump event at the 2016 Rio Paralympics by leaping 1.89 metres, his mother Saroja—a construction labourer-cum-vegetable vendor—headed to work as usual. Much like her son, she hadn’t realised the enormity of the achievement till the media showered attention on this young man from the sleepy village of Periavadagampatti in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district. “I was obviously pleased with my performance, but there was no big celebration. I realised the value of the medal much later,” says Thangavelu. The humility with which he recalls his historic feat—he became the third Indian to win a gold medal in the Paralympics and the first from the country to do so in high jump—is symbolic of the way he has dealt with the many questions life has asked of him.

His father abandoned his family early on, leaving his wife and four children to fend for themselves. When he was five, an inebriated bus driver ran over him, resulting in a permanent disability in his right leg. However, he did not consider his stunted leg a liability. His physical education teacher in school pushed him to try high jumping, and he mastered its technique through relentless practice.


“He was a disciplined and confident kid. His struggle made him hungry for success and he strived hard to achieve what he has,” says coach Satyanarayana, who has been training him since 2013. The government, too, has acknowledged Thangavelu’s efforts and honoured him with the Padma Shri this year.

Thangavelu’s inspirational tale will soon be seen on celluloid with Aishwarya Rajinikanth Dhanush having announced a biopic on him. Thangavelu, though happy with the recognition, has other priorities. He intends to use a vast chunk of his prize money to build sporting infrastructure in his village. Then there’s the World Para Athletics Championships in London this July and another medal to win.

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(This story appears in the 17 February, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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