Ever heard of a pacesetter achieving a podium finish on debut, rewriting the record books, claiming a handsome prize money, and hitting the jackpot of Olympics qualification?

India witnessed just this incredible feat a few months ago when 28-year-old Gopi Thonakkal finished runners-up in the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. No wonder, then, that the unassuming man from the Army instantly rose to stardom for springing the biggest surprise in the recent history of Indian athletics.

A havaldar with the Indian Army, Thonakkal, who specialises in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre events, was never in the reckoning for the Rio Olympics berth. He was content with assisting his counterparts at the Army Sports Institute to achieve their Olympics dreams.

But the 27-year-old’s career changed forever, thanks to a stellar performance on a cool morning on January 17 in Mumbai.

The marathon marvel

Thonakkal was assigned the task of setting the pace for ASI’s Nitendra Singh Rawat and Kheta Ram. Army coach Surinder Singh asked him to run 30 kilometres with his team-mates. As the race progressed, his body felt great – so he continued running and completed the gruelling 42.195 km race in two hours and just over 16 minutes to finish 11th overall and second among Indians. In the process, he entered the record books, won Rs 5,50,000 as prize money and booked a ticket to Olympics.

“I am basically a 5,000m and 10,000m runner. I had never competed in a full marathon prior to the Mumbai event. My job was to set the pace for Nitendra. But I decided to finish as I felt good as the race progressed. I didn’t expect that I would achieve Olympic qualification at first go,” he had said after the event.

Mentor and guide

That winning feeling took some time to sink in, but the achievement brought old memories back to his mind. “I owe this achievement to my beloved teacher, KP Vijayi, who lodged me in her house to ensure that I would not miss my training sessions. I am like her son and whatever I have achieved in life is due to her. She is the pillar of my strength,” Thonakkal said while addressing a reception in his home town.

Gopi Thonakkal with KP Vijayi. Image courtesy: Shaji Paul Kalpetta

Born in a tribal family in the Wayanad district of Kerala, Gopi began a sporting career after he was spotted by Vijayi, the physical education teacher at the Government High School Kakkavayal in Waynad (she retired from service last year). Though he joined the school in Class 5, the teacher noticed his skills two years later.

Until then Gopi had competed in 600 metre races, but Vijayi made him switch to the 800 and 1,500 metre events. The decision paid off as the tall boy began clinching medals in inter-school athletic meets. Their association continued till he completed higher secondary education, after which he moved to Mar Athnasius College in Kothamangalam.

“Never miss training”

“Gopi is not just like a son, he is my son. We stayed together and ate whatever food we have. The only advice that I gave him was not to miss training. I am so proud of his achievement. He stays in my house even now when he comes back on vacation,” said Vijayi, who has trained many international athletes including Aboobacker, VV Sindhu, Anju Thomas, and MS Bibin, to name a few, from a school that has large number of tribal students on its rolls.

It is indeed a big achievement to cultivate so many stars at a government school equipped with only a poorly-maintained, gravel athletic track. She depended heavily on the government’s “Breakfast for Tribal Students Scheme” to provide “nutritious’ food for her wards.

“My plans wouldn’t have worked if the tribal students were not provided breakfast. Gopi too was its beneficiary,” said Vijayi.

Vijayi monitored Gopi’s performance off the track too. The athlete wouldn’t have completed his studies had the teacher not intervened at a crucial juncture. “Gopi didn’t get promotion from Class 9 as he had shortage of attendance. When the school reopened after summer vacation, someone told me that he won’t continue his studies. Then I persuaded the headmaster to promote him as he lost attendance due to participation in athletic competitions. It made Gopi happy and he resumed his studies. From then on, I didn’t allow him to go anywhere,” said the teacher, who doesn’t enjoy celebrity status despite producing many talented athletes.

Gopi switched to 5,000 and 10,000 metres after joining Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam. He won medals in inter-university events, which paved the way for him to join the Indian Army.

Even Vijayi was stunned when she heard about Gopi’s Olympic qualification. “At first, I couldn’t believe my ears. But I knew it was no fluke. He is a committed athlete who believes in hard work.”

Now, the teacher is eagerly waiting for the day when Gopi puts on his spikes to challenge celebrated marathon runners from around the world at Rio.

“He is a down-to-earth boy. He doesn’t have any pretentions. He is straightforward too. He is strong both physically and mentally. And I will not be surprised if he comes back with a medal. I am praying to god for that moment,” said Vijayi.

Image courtesy: Shaji Paul Kalpetta