Monday, December 22, 2008
Saving lives through swimming
The Thoppan’s Swimming Academy, besides the Meenachil River, is the only functioning pool in Pala in Kottayam district, Kerala. Youths, from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, have secured jobs through their swimming exploits
By Shevlin Sebastian
When Ravi Menon (name changed) went to the bathroom at the hostel of the St. Thomas College at Pala, Kerala, he saw that there was no water. Taking a towel, a bar of soap and a mug, he went to the nearby Meenachil river to have a bath. But he was so scared of going into the river he sat on the steps and poured water on his body with a mug.
A little later his friend, Suresh, ran down the steps, placed both his hands on Ravi’s shoulders, somersaulted into the river and started swimming.
After twenty minutes when he returned he did not see Ravi. Assuming he had gone back, Suresh dried himself and returned to the hostel. But, unfortunately, Ravi had slipped into the river and had drowned.
This incident had a profound impact on Thomas Thoppan, 56, the swimming coach of the Mahatma Gandhi University; his older brother Cyriac retrieved the body. “I felt that as a coach I needed to do something,” he says.
He asked his brother Joy, who owned property in Velliappally, near the Meenachil river, whether he could construct a pool on his plot. Joy, a swimming coach at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation at Tamil Nadu, agreed.
Thomas hired a JCB excavator to make a hole in the ground. Thereafter, he built a 25m pool, thanks to a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from the bank and with the help of his younger brother, Mathew.
“We took the water from the river,” says Mathew. “It took 25 hours to fill the pool. We needed 5.5 lakh litres.” So, in 1997, the Thoppan’s Swimming Academy was set up.
The classes began, but within a week, because of the absence of a filteration unit, the water got muddied. It was released into a culvert, which led to the river. Water was again pumped in from the Meenachil. It would take a couple of years before a filteration unit was installed.
On a sunny Friday evening, last month, the children come in at 4 p.m. for the evening session. They range in age from 5 to 18 years. They strip down to their swimming gear, and run a few rounds around the edge of the pool. Then they dive into the pool and Thomas starts issuing instructions.
“Unlike in the metros where the swimmers usually come from middle-class families, most of our trainees are the children of labourers and auto-rickshaw drivers,” says Thomas.
There is five-year-old Vineet K.S., the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, rolling smoothly in the outside lane. In the middle lane, Divya Kuriakose, 15, the daughter of a policeman, is doing the backstroke. Next to her is Anne Mary, 14, the daughter of a tailor. The older ones do an average of 5000m per day.
For the poor the charges are Rs 100 a month. “Earlier, entry was free,” says Mathew. “But they got lazy. But when parents started paying the fees they ensured the children came every day.” For those who can afford it, the rate is Rs 3000 per year.
One parent who is keenly watching the proceedings is businessman Unni Harinath. “My son, Hari Shankar, is only five years old but I want him to become a champion swimmer. In this sport, you can reach a world class level at an early age.”
Standing on the other side, and keeping a sharp eye on the swimmers, is K. Aloysius, the secretary of the Kottayam District Aquatic Association. The association selects promising youngsters who are given training at the academy.
“Later, we take them to district and state level championships,” he says. “A lot of them have got jobs through swimming.”
Jobs are the key to the great attraction the pool holds for parents in the area. The list of swimmers who won state and national meets and then got employed is long: There is Rajeev K.K. and Sumi Cyriac, who works for the Railways, Akhil Joseph, Kannan P.R., Alex Lewis, and Rahul Raj secured employment with the Military Engineering Service of the Indian Army, while Joy Thomas joined the Army.
All Thomas’s five brothers –national and international swimmers -- have got jobs through the sport.
It is one reason why Betsy Maria Mathew, 17, has been swimming at the academy for the past six years. A state-level 200m breaststroke champion, and the daughter of a poor labourer, she says, “I want to become a national champion so that I can get a good job.”
Meanwhile, the Thoppan brothers are struggling to stay afloat. Monthly expenses of the pool hover around the Rs 30,000 mark; the income is far below that. When Thomas approached local schools to send their children to his pool, he was accused of “trying to make a profit.”
He says that no school in Pala has a pool. “If 90 per cent of the school children fall into the river they will drown,” he says.
The Academy has also not received any financial support from the panchayat or the government. “The local MLA, K.M. Mani promised a Rs 1 lakh grant, but it never materialised,” says Mathew.
Thomas Kunnapally, president of the Kottayam zilla panchayat, sanctioned Rs 5 lakh, but there was immediate opposition. “People asked why public money should be given to a private enterprise,” says Mathew.
Despite these obstacles, the academy has made a name for itself. The Kottayam district championship, the inter-school championships and the coaching camp of MG University have been held at the pool.
Kripakar Reddy, a Naval Commander, based in Kochi, stayed a fortnight with Thomas, so that his son, Vicky could learn swimming. A summer camp has drawn more than 300 children. Youngsters, who are keen to join the aviation industry, as well as the Navy, come to the academy to learn swimming.
Despite the financial problems, the Thoppan brothers want to move ahead. They are keen to put up a roof, since it is difficult to swim in the daytime because of the blazing sun. “It will cost Rs 15 lakh,” says Thomas. “We are looking for sponsors.”
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)