A coach with a great reputation

K.P. Thomas receives the Dronacharya Award from President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.-R.V. MOORTHY

“It is a great honour and I got it only because of the hard work put in by my trainees,” said K. P. Thomas shortly after receiving the Dronacharya Award in New Delhi. By P. K. Ajith Kumar.

He put a small village in central Kerala on India’s athletics map. He has produced over 1,000 athletes, many of them doing India proud in international events. His wards include winners of Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards. But not many outside Kerala had heard of K. P. Thomas. Until he was chosen for this year’s Dronacharya Award.

“It is a great honour and I got it only because of the hard work put in by my trainees,” Thomas told Sportstar shortly after receiving the award in New Delhi earlier this month. “I will use the money — the whole of it — that comes with the award to sponsor needy athletes; that is what I have been doing all along. I had used my army pension to fund my trainees in the past.”

Such selflessness is what makes him different from other coaches. He is also one of the most dedicated men you would find in Indian sport. He made the school, CKMHSS, Koruthode, where he worked as a Physical Education teacher for two decades, the champion team in the State School Games, the biggest annual sporting event in Kerala. The school was the State champion for a record 16 years in a row.

“It was my dream to work as a coach in a school and when an officer in the military from Koruthode village told me about the school, I took up the assignment,” he recalled. “I was a coach in the Services, like O. M. Nambiar, A. K. Kutty and T. P. Ouseph, but I decided to do Masters in Physical Education from the LNCPE, Gwalior so that I could be a coach at a school. I am glad that I joined the Koruthode school after the course; there I had the full backing of the school and the villagers.”

Thomas is known for spotting talents early and giving them proper direction. His most famous trainees include Anju Bobby George, Joseph Abraham, C. S. Muralidharan, Molly Chacko and Jincy Philip. Shiny Wilson is his niece and he found an athlete in her when she was a little girl.

Yet, the eligibility of Thomas for the Dronacharya Award was questioned by another coach. “I took that criticism in my stride, but my wards were angered by the remarks against me,” he said. “I never went after the Dronacharya Award. My trainees and the media in Kerala had conferred me the title Dronacharya long ago.”

He said it was unfortunate that triple jumper Renjith Maheshwary was denied the Arjuna Award at the last minute, citing a dope offence five years ago. “Our top athletes should not be insulted like this,” he said. “I feel sorry for Renjith, who had trained with me for a few months before he left, as he found I was too strict a disciplinarian.”

According to Thomas the case of volleyball star Tom Joseph was even more unfortunate. Tom’s name was missing from the list of Arjuna awardees for the eighth year in a row, despite being nominated every year. This year, a member of the selection panel of the awards had registered his protest openly at the omission of Tom, regarded as the finest Indian talent in volleyball after the legendary Jimmy George. “Tom should have got the Arjuna long ago,” said Thomas. “I am told that it was selection panel members from sports like cricket and hockey that had objected when Tom’s name cropped up. Maybe we should have members from more sports at the selection panel in the future.”

Thomas is not known for resting on his laurels. He is now training students at SNMVHSS, Vannappuram. “My aim is to produce an Olympian from Vannappuram,” said the 68-year-old.

You better not bet against him.