There was a flutter of excitement across the IIT Gandhinagar Campus as Subramani Siva set the height for the crossbar to 5.31m. The rest of the men’s pole vault field had been reduced to spectators as Siva looked to improve his national record of 5.30m, that he’d set back in 2018. There would be no disappointment for either Siva, or those watching his jump, as he cleared the bar with several inches to spare at his very first attempt.
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Siva would make two attempts – both narrow misses – at 5.36m. He’d then go for broke with the height set at 5.40m and fall excruciatingly short, clipping the crossbar on the way down.
As he posed for the camera’s after breaking the national pole vault record, Siva would flex a distinctive pose – one fist stretched away from him and the other tucked close to his body. According to Siva, that’s meant to resemble a spider. “It’s a pose I’ve created by myself. I’ve styled it after a spider. Whatever difficult situation it finds itself in, it’s able to find a way to escape. It can control any situation and move wherever it wants,” says the 26-year old.
For those who follow track and field, satisfaction that Siva broke his record was paired with surprise that it took 4 years for him to do so. He had broken the national record for the first time in 2017 when as a 21 year old he leaped 5.14m and he had improved that mark to 5.30m a year later.
The four-year gap was because it was Siva who found himself trapped in a web of dejection. It was one that almost saw him leave his sport after a personal tragedy a year ago. In May 2021, Siva’s coach Dan Wilcox passed away due to complications of COVID during the second wave of the virus in India. “It took me four years to break my record. One year was spoiled because of COVID and the next year after Wilcox sir passed away, I didn’t have a free mind,” he says.
It is perhaps an understatement to say that Wilcox was Siva’s coach. “He was like my backbone,” Siva says. “I wouldn’t have anything in sports if it wasn’t for him,” says Siva.
The son of daily-wage labourers in the village of Kallanai, near Trichy in Tamil Nadu, Siva was picked out of obscurity completely by chance when he was spotted by pole vaulting coach Dan Wilcox. Siva was just 18 then. “There is Poondi Maada church some distance from my village (Kallanai in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu). I think Wilcox sir was going there. I was just on the road when Wilcox sir saw me,” he says.
Siva’s brother had had some pole vaulting experience in college and the sport had caught his eye as well but he had little knowledge of how to pursue it. Siva thinks that perhaps Wilcox, who ran a pole vault academy in Chennai, had seen his brother competing and may have recognised him as well. “He asked me if I did pole vault and I said I had a little idea of how to do so. He then saw me do some drills and saw me make dives in the Kallanai dam. He then asked me if I would come to Chennai and learn the pole vault,” Siva recalls.
Siva went to Chennai where Wilcox not only gave him a place to stay but also got him a seat in Loyola College. The trajectory of Siva’s pole vault career was also taking off as he broke national records first at the 2017 Federation Cup and then at the Army Inter Services meet a year later. But just as he was getting ready to make a breakthrough at the international level, COVID-19 struck. While the first year saw his training come to a halt, the second saw Wilcox pass away.
“He was like my backbone. If your backbone goes, it’s like the will to continue the sport has gone. I even missed when he would shout at me if I didn’t work hard. All of my workouts were set by my coach. So when he passed away I didn’t know what to do. I was really upset. I didn’t have my focus in competition. I even stopped training,” he says.
Despairing, he would return home to Kallanai, where his parents and his employers – the Indian Army, where he now serves as a Havaldar - encouraged him to return. He eventually did, returning to the same academy in Chennai where training had been taken over by Wilcox’s son Gerald.
Gerald was born deaf and mute but he had been a talented pole vaulter himself – twice winning medals at the Deaflympics. While there were concerns, at least from others whether he would be able to coach Siva, those were soon put to rest.
“I’ve been with Gerald sir since I was young. I was very attached to the family so there’s no communication problem. I can understand what his actions mean. Wilcox sir had already taught us what actions were. So When his son does them, I can understand. I can understand what he’s saying from a distance. We understand each other perfectly,” he says.
After a spell where he struggled to find motivation, it was only in January this year that Siva says he was able to focus completely on his training with Gerald Wilcox. Siva is as attached to Gerald as he was to his father Dan. “I owe everything to them. The cost of a pole is 1 lakh 20 thousand. I don’t have any sponsors. Only sponsor is Army Sports Institute. Even now, Gerald sir travels 50km every morning to come and give training. Even though I now have a job with the Army, he still provides me with breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says.
With his mind focused on the sport once again, Siva is once again looking to make his mark on the track. “This is like a second comeback for me,” he says. Siva had a slow start to the season with jumps of 5m at the Inter State championships in June and the international pole vaulting meet in Busan in August. He improved to 5.20m at the Inter Services meet in September, followed by the national record in Gandhinagar.
While he’s happy with the record, Siva says he’s not satisfied. Indeed his jump of 5.31m will only place him 186th in the world this season while even a successful clearance of 5.40m would place him in the top 120 athletes this year.
“My target for this year was to do 5.50m. I think I would have got it also but the conditions here (In Gandhinagar) were very hot and humid. But I still have one more competition for the season (The Open Nationals in Bangalore). I will try my best to come close to that target there,” he says.
And now that he’s beginning to find his stride once again, Siva is looking for even bigger things next season. “My target for the next season will be to medal at the Asian Games. I am targeting a jump of 5.65m or 5.70m over there. The India level is a little low but it won’t always be low. I will change it. If I can do that that will be my tribute for everything Wilcox sir has done for me,” he says.