Born with a rare con­di­tion that left him with stunted legs, 104cm-tall Joby Mathew cap­i­talised on his strengths and is now a cham­pion arm-wrestler. By He­len Roberts and Anand Raj OK

Friday - - THE BIG STORY -

Joby Mathew was not up­set. Al­though he had landed in New Delhi af­ter a tir­ing 18-hour flight from Michi­gan, US, the world armwrestling cham­pion was smil­ing to all those who paused to stare at him. In his rough and ex­tremely cal­loused left hand were five gold medals that he had won, each bear­ing the in­scrip­tion ‘World Dwarf Games 2013’.

But un­like the hearty, rap­tur­ous re­cep­tions ac­corded to suc­cess­ful crick­eters or Olympic medal win­ners in In­dia, there were no crowds or govern­ment of­fi­cials wait­ing at the air­port to wel­come this 104cm-tall cham­pion and his four team­mates. In fact, ex­cept for a bunch of fam­ily mem­bers and friends, there were no of­fi­cials to give Joby the hero’s wel­come that he truly de­served – the of­fi­cials, he was later told, were busy with In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence day cel­e­bra­tions so they could not come to re­ceive him.

“I’m not up­set that no sports of­fi­cial was there to wel­come me,”

says the 38-year-old, who also won gold at the­World ArmWrestling Cham­pi­onship in 2012 and has won 10 world medals in the past decade.

“I’m not dis­ap­pointed,” he says. “It hap­pens of­ten – spe­cial needs ath­letes don’t of­ten get the recog­ni­tion they de­serve from au­thor­i­ties. It doesn’t bother me.

“If I had al­lowed such things to worry me, I would never have reached where I am to­day.”

Joby may be the height of an aver­age three-year-old, but in the eyes of his wife, Megha Pil­lai, and son, Jyothis Joby, he’s a gi­ant.

Ex­cited to see her cham­pion hus­band re­turn with a hand­ful of medals, Megha bent down to hug Joby. “I’m so happy you are a cham­pion again,’’ she said.

Their four-year-old son, who is al­ready a cou­ple of cen­time­tres taller than his fa­ther, gave him a shy kiss be­fore check­ing his medals.

“When I first met Joby some eight years ago, I never imag­ined that he would be able to par­tic­i­pate and win medals in sport­ing com­pe­ti­tions,” says Megha.

“Phys­i­cally he was small but there was a cer­tain pos­i­tive at­ti­tude about him. He seemed so con­fi­dent and charm­ing and I was in­stantly at­tracted to him.”

Born with a rare con­di­tion called prox­i­mal femoral fo­cal de­fi­ciency, which left him with de­formed hips and stunted legs with no knee joints, Joby, from a vil­lage called Adukkom in the south­ern In­dian state of Ker­ala, ra­di­ates op­ti­mism. He has over­come myr­iad chal­lenges to be­come one of the top ath­letes in both nor­mal and spe­cial needs cat­e­gories.

He won gold in the 52kg able­bod­ied arm-wrestling cat­e­gory and sil­ver in the 60kg dis­abled cat­e­gory at the 29thWorld ArmWrestling Cham­pi­onship in Spain in 2008.

Joby, who works for the Bharat Petroleum Cor­po­ra­tion as a sports trainer, is also the first wheel-chaired fencer in In­dia, holds a brown belt in karate, is a mem­ber of the Ker­ala state para­sail­ing and paraglid­ing team and is a keen swim­mer.

“My next dream is to climb Mount Ever­est,’’ says Joby, who has been di­ag­nosed as 65 per cent or­thopaed­i­cally chal­lenged. “I know it’s go­ing to be tough but I’m sure I can do it.’’

He has al­ready en­rolled in a four­month moun­taineer­ing school in Switzer­land. “I will climb Mount Ever­est be­fore 2020. That’s my goal.” Megha, 30, has no doubt that her hus­band will be able to ac­com­plish the feat. “He may be a dwarf, but he’s a gi­ant amongst men,’’ she says.

Stand­ing 165cm tall, Megha met Joby at a lec­ture on self-em­pow­er­ment in Ker­ala in 2006.

“I was about to sign in the reg­is­ter when I found that some­body had al­ready signed in the col­umn next to my name,’’ she says. The or­gan­is­ers checked and found that the sig­na­ture be­longed to Joby, who had mis­tak­enly signed in the wrong col­umn.

Megha went into the hall and was in­tro­duced to Joby by an or­gan­iser.

“I was sur­prised [at how small he was],” she says. “But he was so nice and promptly apol­o­gised for the mix up. We got talk­ing and soon re­alised we had a lot in com­mon.”

When they left the lec­ture they did not ex­pect to meet again. But then by sheer co­in­ci­dence, they bumped into

‘My next dream is to climb Mount Ever­est. I know it will be tough but I’m sure I can do it’

each other on three more oc­ca­sions over the next two months and soon they be­gan to de­velop feel­ings for each other.

“I had no idea that he had ac­com­plished so much,’’ says Megha, a clas­si­cally trained dancer, so­cial ac­tivist and a re­search scholar in English lit­er­a­ture.

“It was a friend who told me that he was an arm-wrestling cham­pion. I was in­trigued and very im­pressed that a man with a phys­i­cal chal­lenge could achieve so much. I also ad­mired his pos­i­tive at­ti­tude, in­tel­li­gence and his de­ter­mi­na­tion. His so-called disability never both­ered me.

“Then, on Septem­ber 10, a few months af­ter we met for the first time, Joby phoned me and, just like that, said, ‘I’d like to marry you’.

“I was over­joyed. By then I had fallen in love with him and wanted to marry him. His con­di­tion did not worry me. To me, Joby is not short. He is truly a gi­ant among men.”

Since Joby is a Chris­tian and Megha be­longs to a tra­di­tional Hindu fam­ily where mar­riages are usu­ally ar­ranged and in­ter-caste mar­riages es­pe­cially are frowned upon, it wasn’t easy to con­vince Megha’s fa­ther to give his bless­ing.

“Ini­tially my dad, who owns a cloth store, was un­will­ing,” says Megha. But af­ter he met Joby, who

‘Early life was not easy. Up un­til age eight, I used to crawl every­where us­ing my legs and arms’

has a law de­gree and a post-grad­u­ate de­gree in eco­nom­ics, it all changed.

“Joby was able to win over my par­ents with his con­fi­dence and pos­i­tive na­ture, and they promptly gave us the go-ahead to get mar­ried.”

The cou­ple, who live in Ker­ala, mar­ried in Novem­ber 2008 and had their son a year later. “If it was not for my sup­port­ive fam­ily – my par­ents as well as my wife – I would not have made it this far,’’ says Joby.

Born in 1976, Joby was two when he was di­ag­nosed with the ge­netic con­di­tion af­ter his par­ents took him for a check-up when they re­alised his legs were not de­vel­op­ing.

“My fa­ther Mathew was a farmer, while my mother Aleykutty is a house­wife. They tried hard to give me as good a life as they could af­ford,’’ says Joby, who has a younger sis­ter Smitha Maria who is able-bod­ied.

His rare non-herid­i­tary birth de­fect has no cure; one of the op­tions for treat­ment is am­pu­ta­tion and us­ing pros­the­sis. But be­cause the fam­ily was too poor to af­ford this treat­ment, Joby was forced to live with his con­di­tion. “Early life was not easy,” says Joby. “Be­cause I have no knees, walk­ing was very dif­fi­cult and up un­til al­most age eight I used to crawl every­where us­ing my legs and arms.”

Life kept throw­ing chal­lenges his way – when he was five he lost his fa­ther. “Ours was a poor fam­ily and we found it hard to sur­vive af­ter he died of a heart at­tack. But I guess be­cause I was born chal­lenged, I also craved chal­lenges,” he laughs.

“My mother was the one who en­cour­aged me. She used to work in the fields and earn enough to sup­port me and my sis­ter, who is now a nun.

“I was strong from a young age be­cause I used to love climb­ing trees and swim­ming in the nearby river.

“I started de­vel­op­ing my up­per body to com­pen­sate for my stunted legs. I used to do pull-ups on tree branches, push-ups, I learnt to bal­ance on one hand, then even on just my fin­gers.”

But sim­ple things like go­ing to school were gi­ant hur­dles for Joby.

“My school was 12km away and be­cause there were very few buses, I used to walk there ev­ery day.”

‘Walk’ was per­haps not ex­actly the right term. Joby used to crawl.

“Dur­ing rains, I’d get drenched be­cause I couldn’t hold an um­brella. The road was rocky and it used to hurt my hand, re­sult­ing in cal­luses,’’ he says, show­ing his rough left palm.

Joby’s par­ents took him to sev­eral doc­tors in their vil­lage, but they all had the same an­swer: there was no cure avail­able for his con­di­tion apart from ex­pen­sive surgery and pros­the­sis.

“At times I felt des­per­ate to be nor­mal,’’ he says. “But dur­ing my late teens when I ac­cepted that noth­ing was go­ing to change, I be­came a stronger per­son men­tally and com­mit­ted to chang­ing my fu­ture.”

One of Joby’s pas­sions was sport. “I used to plead with the school’s PE in­struc­tors to in­clude me in as many sport­ing events as pos­si­ble,” he says.

But while some teach­ers en­cour­aged the boy, there were a few who told him to sit out while able-bod­ied chil­dren played sport.

“I had many painful ex­pe­ri­ences be­ing left out of sports,” he says. “There were a few school mates who used to poke fun at my con­di­tion. But that never up­set me. What did for a while was when some adults re­fused to take me se­ri­ously when I would tell them that I wanted to play sports. But those in­stances only made me more de­ter­mined to achieve some­thing. When I re­alised I’d never be able to play foot­ball or hockey, I looked for games where I could cap­i­talise on my arms, be­cause they were the strong­est parts of my body.’’

While sit­ting out dur­ing sports classes, Joby would ask his friends to prove their strength on the ta­ble, and soon he be­came the cham­pion arm-wrestler at school and then the district and state.

Fast-for­ward to 2005 and Joby was be­ing of­fered help from Tamil film star Sarath Ku­mar to par­tic­i­pate in the 2005World ArmWrestling Cham­pi­onships in Ja­pan.

“He is such an amaz­ing man,’’ says Joby. “He read an ar­ti­cle about me look­ing for help to par­tic­i­pate in the cham­pi­onship and im­me­di­ately con­tacted me and of­fered to pay for my ticket and other ex­penses.”

Joby won three bronze medals – one against able-bod­ied com­peti­tors and two in the dis­abled cat­e­gory.

“I’ve worked hard for the past 22 years to de­velop my up­per body and use it to my ad­van­tage,’’ he says. “Thank­fully I’ve been suc­cess­ful.”

Joby hits the gym for an hour ev­ery day be­fore swim­ming for around two hours in a lo­cal river.

But of course the go­ing has not been easy: “I re­mem­ber one of my first district com­pe­ti­tions where I was very ex­cited and con­fi­dent I’d win, but I lost. It was a huge blow to my con­fi­dence.

“I re­mem­ber go­ing to the bath­room and cry­ing. I was very an­gry with my­self for los­ing, but then I re­alised the sad­ness wouldn’t get me any­where and I de­cided to fight back. I worked hard and the next com­pe­ti­tion four months later, I en­tered and I won.’’

It’s these pos­i­tive qual­i­ties that Megha says sets Joby apart from some other ath­letes. “He’s very pos­i­tive and once he sets his mind on some­thing, he will do all that he can to achieve it,” she says.

“My hus­band has never needed my help to achieve his dreams. He does that very well on his own and he does not need any kind of en­cour­age­ment from me.

“But I am one of his most loyal sup­port­ers. As his wife I will do my part to help him achieve what he needs to achieve. He is a great mo­ti­va­tor. It’s amaz­ing how he main­tains his enthusiasm.’’

Joby says that he could have done a lot more if only more help from of­fi­cials was forth­com­ing.

“There have been sev­eral oc­ca­sions when I’ve qual­i­fied for a com­pe­ti­tion but have not been able to par­tic­i­pate due to lack of funds,” he says.

Joby has also been on sev­eral tele­vi­sion pro­grammes talk­ing about achieve­ments, in­clud­ing a show called En­ter­tain­ment ke liye kuch bhi

karega (Hindi for Will do any­thing

for en­ter­tain­ment) where he armwres­tled Bol­ly­wood stars in­clud­ing Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Cho­pra and di­rec­tor Farah Khan.

“Priyanka is such a lovely per­son. She is so sweet and asked me so many ques­tions about my train­ing and fit­ness reg­i­men. Ranbir too is such a lovely man. Un­for­tu­nately, I was so ex­cited to see them that I for­got to take any pic­tures!

“That pro­gramme was so pop­u­lar. People be­gan to recog­nise Megha and I when we stepped out in pub­lic.

“It’s nice to be recog­nised. In some ways it makes all the hard work you have done worth it.”

Joby’s hard work has also al­lowed him to en­joy a bet­ter qual­ity of life. He now drives a spe­cially con­verted car, which he can op­er­ate with only his hands.

“I love trav­el­ling and en­joy tak­ing my fam­ily for out­ings,” he says.

Joby’s son Jyothis is fast be­com­ing a champ in his own right. Al­though just get­ting ready for grade one, he’s al­ready tak­ing lessons in clas­si­cal dance from his mother and also prac­tises yoga.

“Jyothis is a very smart boy,” says Megha. “Just like his fa­ther, he’s very good at wrestling, dance and ac­ro­bat­ics also.’’

Megha and Jyothis never ac­com­pany Joby on his com­pe­ti­tion tours. “We pre­fer to stay at home and sup­port him by watch­ing his com­pe­ti­tions on TV,’’ says Megha.

They spend lots of qual­ity time to­gether on week­ends or when Joby is not busy train­ing.

They go swim­ming to­gether, visit beaches and go to the park and zoo as a fam­ily.

At the mo­ment Joby is pre­par­ing for his Mount Ever­est trip, and get­ting ready to fly off to Switzer­land for the course in moun­taineer­ing.

“It’s ex­pen­sive,” says Joby. “The course costs Rs3.5 lakh (Dh20,709). Then there are other ex­penses.

“There are a few or­gan­i­sa­tions who have promised to help me,” he says. “I wish the In­dian govern­ment too comes for­ward to ac­tively pro­mote and en­cour­age people like me to make a mark in the in­ter­na­tional arena and bring glory to our coun­try.”

But Joby is de­ter­mined. There hasn’t been one chal­lenge yet that he has not de­feated.

Megha, mean­while, stands like a pil­lar of sup­port be­hind her hus­band. “I am sure he will be able to climb to the sum­mit of Mount Ever­est,” she says. “Once he sets his mind on some­thing, he doesn’t rest un­til he achieves it.”

Lit­tle Jyothis chips in, “My dad is a champ. He will climb any moun­tain.”

Joby smiles and ruf­fles his son’s hair. “This is go­ing to be harder than any­thing I’ve ever done in the past. I’ve al­ways con­cen­trated on sports that my body has been able to with­stand, but this Ever­est trek will be some­thing that my body will not nec­es­sar­ily be com­fort­able with. It’ll take im­mense strength, en­durance and com­mit­ment. But I’m ready.’’

‘It’s nice to be recog­nised. In some ways it makes all the hard work you have done worth it’

Joby has trained to bal­ance on one arm

THE BIG STORY Joby be­ing re­ceived by chil­dren and a lo­cal sport author­ity in Kochi, In­dia. He hopes the govern­ment will do more to help dis­abled people com­pete

Joby’s wife Megha and son Jyothis are his big­gest fans

The champ flexes his mus­cles in Spain

Joby works out in the gym reg­u­larly

He has now set his sights on climb­ing Mount Ever­est

Joby also plays a mean game of bad­minton

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