Annie Varghese, woman behind Kerala’s college of Olympians

Athletes Rosa Kutty, Jincy Philip, Manjima Kuriakose, Anju Bobby George and Bobby Aloysius are Olympians from Vimala College, which has also produced outstanding sportspersons in other disciplines such as basketball, handball, swimming and hockey.

Nostalgic: Septuagenarian Annie Varghese interacts with students of Vimala College, where she began a kind of sporting revolution that went on to produce five Olympians.   -  K. K. NAJEEB

After a night of heavy, incessant rain, the morning is relatively calm as we drive to Vimala College. There is, however, a steady drizzle when we reach the campus.

With the threatening clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic still hanging ominously above Kerala, it is hardly a surprise to find the college so quiet with hardly anyone on the premises. At the indoor stadium, though, there is some activity. Physical Education lecturer Agibet Mathews and a group of girls, most of whom had competed at the Calicut University inter-collegiate boxing championship the previous night at another indoor stadium in Thrissur, are there.

They are not aware that they would soon be treated to an absorbing, informal talk from a remarkable woman, about whom they had heard a lot but had never met. When Sportstar asked Annie Varghese whether she could come to the college, where she began a kind of sporting revolution that went on to produce five Olympians, she had readily agreed, her troublesome knee notwithstanding.

She needs a bit of help from Agibet, the latest recruit to the college’s Physical Education department that she set up five decades ago, to step out of the car. She is well dressed and looks elegant.

“I am 78 now, and wasn’t like this in my younger days; people used to say that I was very stylish,” she tells the girls, smiling. “You still are,” one of them reassures her, much to the amusement of her friends, who all laugh loudly.

The girls know about the rich sporting legacy of their college, but they don’t know how it happened. Now they hear it from the woman who began it all.

Annie’s association with Vimala College started when the institution began, in 1967. After a brief stint as a teacher at Rosary Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Chennai, she had moved to Thrissur to join St. Mary’s College, where she taught English.

She had an M.A. in English from Mysore University and a Physical Education degree from the LNIPE in Gwalior. She used to teach English at Vimala, too, for a few years before she began to devote her entire time to develop a sporting culture in the college.

It wasn’t easy. “The college didn’t have a ground to train — it still doesn’t — so we had to depend on the neighbouring Government Engineering College,” recalls Annie. “And we had to finish our training before the boys at the college hostel woke up.”

Popular alumni: Anju Bobby George, Vimala College’s most famous product, has vivid memories of those days. “The college encouraged its athletes immensely and Miss Annie took good care of us. I have fond memories of the time spent with her, and the way she dressed. We still keep in touch.”   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

Anju Bobby George, Vimala College’s most famous product, has vivid memories of those days. “There was this boy who used to watch us girls through his binoculars,” she reminisces. “The college may not have the infrastructure, but the management, the teachers and the Physical Education ensured that the athletes were given the best possible care. I used to take part in as many as seven events, including heptathlon, so that the college could win more medals.”

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Anju adds the college played a major role in shaping her career as an athlete. “I had other choices for my Pre-Degree course, but I am glad I decided to study at Vimala,” she says. “The college encouraged its athletes immensely and Miss Annie took good care of us. I have fond memories of the time spent with her, and the way she dressed. We still keep in touch.”

Anju wasn’t the first from Vimala to make it to the Olympics. Rosa Kutty was. “Coming from Ayavana, a remote village in Ernakulam, I hadn’t heard of Vimala, but joined there because of the Kerala Sports Council’s residential training programme,” says Rosa. “I had no formal training in athletics before I went to Vimala, where I was coached by E.M. Antony. Since my father had passed away when I was very young, Miss Annie was particularly considerate to me; she would allow me to go home more often.”

Rosa is delighted that the college could produce four more Olympians after her. She was part of the Indian women’s 4x400m relay teams in 1996 and 2000. Jincy Philip (2000), Manjima Kuriakose (2000), Anju (2004 and 2008) and Bobby Aloysius (2004) complete the list of Vimala’s Olympians.

Not many colleges boast of having churned out so many Olympians, that too from one sport — athletics. The college’s alumni also includes international athletes such as Lekha Thomas, Sinimol Paulose and Anu Raghavan.

“It is gratifying to note that the college could achieve so much in sport and I am glad that I could play a part in it,” says Annie. “But that has become possible because of the great support from the college’s management and the Principals, right from the first one, Sister Stella Maria, who was instrumental in bringing me to Thrissur from Chennai. Others who followed her, Sisters Philomine, Canisia, Chrisologa, Sobel and Lina, also encouraged sport. All of them helped Vimala retain its great legacy.”

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Annie’s successors in Vimala’s Physical Education department have also done their bit. When Annie retired in 1998, after completing 31 years at the helm, Mary Antony took over.

“Though our focus has always been on competitive sport, I also tried to get all the students involved, by setting up a health club,” says Mary. “I started a health club and made the students realise the importance of sports in life.”

She had joined the college in 1983, by which time a system had already been in place. Though athletics has always been the strength of Vimala right from the early days, the college has produced internationals in other sports such as basketball, handball, swimming and hockey.

Memorable moment: Annie Verghese with the present Principal Sister Mable. In the backdrop are the various medals, shields and trophies won by Vimala college over the years.   -  K. K. NAJEEB

 

“I tried to get our students in as many sports as possible,” says Annie. “In the very first year of the Calicut University inter-collegiate sports championships, back in 1968, we were the winners in athletics, basketball and table tennis.”

Over the years, Mercy College, situated in the neighouring district of Palakkad, became a worthy rival for Vimala in athletics. For several years, or rather decades even, the contest for the women’s overall championship was between those two colleges.

The biggest star to emerge from Mercy is P. T. Usha. “The fight for the overall title with Vimala was very exciting,” recalls Usha. “I used to compete in eight events, ensuring medals for my college in all of them. The rivalry helped both the colleges. If Vimala had Miss Annie to take care of their team, we had Miss Vimala. You won’t find too many dedicated Physical Education teachers like them.”

The rivalry between Vimala and Mercy had started before Usha. And it continued after her.

Anu, one of the last outstanding athletes from Vimala, too, has vivid memories of the exciting battles with Mercy for the athletics crown at the University meet. “The competition for the team title would be so tight that it would be decided by the final event, which would usually be the relay,” she says.

“In my first ever University meet representing Vimala, in 2010, I was running the last leg of the 4x400m relay. If Vimala wanted to be the overall champion, we had to win the gold. If we didn’t, Mercy would have been the champion. I took Vimala to the gold.”

Annie still remembers the first time Vimala beat Mercy. “That was in 1971, but I could not travel with the team for the University meet, which was held at Feroke. My doctor did not let me since I was pregnant,” she says. “I was excited when the news reached me through a trunk call. Mercy had an advantage because they had a 400m track of their own.”

The fight for the top spot at the University athletics is no longer between Mercy and Vimala. In July this year, Christ College, Irinjalakuda, was the women’s overall champion, while St. Thomas, Thrissur, finished runner-up. Mercy was third and Vimala fourth.

Vimala hasn’t won the overall title in women’s athletics since 2016. Several reasons have contributed to the decline. The Kerala Sports Council’s decision to move its hostel from the college is probably the main one.

The decisions taken by the managements of Christ and St. Thomas, both in Thrissur district, to admit women — these were men’s colleges for decades — and to build strong athletics squads have proved costly for Vimala. These colleges have succeeded in attracting several talented female athletes.

“It is disappointing to find that Vimala isn’t doing that well in athletics now,’ says V. P. Sakeer Hussain, director, Physical Education, Calicut University. “But the college’s present principal Sister Mable told me they wanted to regain the lost glory.”

Sister Mable is indeed hopeful of better days. “The management will continue to do the good work,” she says. “We have plans to build a new indoor stadium.”

Picturesque: An overall view of Vimala College, which has produced many National and international athletes.   -  K. K. NAJEEB

 

Vimala is, in fact, among the first colleges in Kerala to have its own indoor stadium and swimming pool.

V. Hemalatha, who heads the college’s Physical Education department currently, is confident that Vimala would be able to make a comeback in athletics. “Since women athletes these days have so many colleges to choose from, and some of those are offering attractive incentives, it is not as easy to get outstanding athletes,” she says. "But my aim is to make Vimala the athletics champion at the University meet again.”

Many, like Annie and Anju, would love to see that happen.