'Don't dream of winning, train for it,' is a famous quote from British Olympic and world champion Mo Farah.
The WhatsApp status of Thonakal Gopi, who became the first Indian man to clinch gold at the Asian Marathon Championships, carries a similar message: “Dreaming is important, but reaching goals takes hard work. There is no shortcut to success.”
Being a great admirer of Mo Farah, what else Gopi could have put up!
The historical win at in Dongguan, China, on Sunday with a timing of 2:15:48 seconds was a reward for all his hard work and unrelenting efforts.
His journey from a remote village called Moolankavu in Wayanad district to the medal podium at the Asian Marathon Championship was not an easy one. He has endured several hardships in his career but emerged strong through them. Nothing dampened his spirit: neither the economic challenges nor the lack of facilities.
This 29-year-old, whose name will now be etched in golden letters in the annals of the Indian athletics’ history, has proved that with extreme determination and unflinching faith one can achieve anything in life.
Spotting a raw talent
A turning point in Gopi’s career and life came when he was in Class V of Government Higher Secondary School in Kakkavayal. K P Vijayi, who was the school’s physical education teacher, spotted the innate talent in the bubbly and bright boy who ran around the school compound with some serious speed.
Vijayi teacher, who has unearthed and trained many talented youngsters, 'inducted' the 10-year-old Gopi into the school athletic team and encouraged him to focus on long-distance events. She took him under her wings and allowed him live in her modest home. His education, food, and training were completely taken care of.
Soon, the young Gopi started winning medals at sub-district and district-level school meets. He went on to become the individual champion in long-distance events at the Wayanad District School Athletics Championship. However, Gopi could not repeat that feat in the state meet as he managed to win only one medal – a bronze – in the 1,500m event.
As a youngster, he was never forced to follow an intense and grueling training regime, and as a result, he peaked at the right time, after joining Mar Athanasius College; Kothamangalam where he pursued his degree. Representing the college, Gopi excelled at various inter-university meets which helped him land a job in Indian Army.
The Army Sports Institute in Pune opened a whole new world for Gopi. He placed a premium on values and discipline and honed his skills under the guidance of expert coaches. In order to focus on training, he limited visits to home to once a year.
Gopi’s fortunes changed dramatically under the tutelage of Surinder Singh Bhandari, the marathon coach at the Army Sports Institute. He made a mark at the national level by winning 10,000m gold at the Open Athletics Championship in 2014 before announcing his arrival on the international scene by shattering Bahadur Singh’s 23-year-old SAF record in the same event.
Drive and determination
Despite achieving big, Gopi did not lose his focus as he continued to show great fortitude and commitment, setting sights on higher goals.
He took part in last year’s Mumbai Marathon as a pacemaker for Kheta Raom and Nitendra Singh Rawat – the specialist marathon runners from Pune Army Sports Institute. Though he was supposed to withdraw at the 30km mark, Gopi completed the race and finished a creditable second, thus earning a ticket for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
At Rio, he clocked his personal best timing of 2: 15.25 seconds to finish 25th. Notably, out of the 168 marathoners from across the globe, only 140 managed to finish the race. He put up a decent performance later at the London World Athletics Championships as well, grabbing the 28th position by clocking 2:17:13s.
After his exploits at the international level, Gopi returned to compete at the 22nd Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar in last July and took home a silver.
Finally, he capped a memorable year with a top finish on Sunday, which earned him a place in record books.