K.P. Thomas, perhaps the first physical education teacher to win the Dronacharya Award, talks to STAN RAYAN about the little things that brought big success

He is a tough taskmaster on the track, a coach who lays down hard rules and expects his trainees to obey them without a whimper of protest.

But back home, K.P. Thomas is a very different man.

And at times, his home has had more than a hundred children, for a good number of his trainees stayed with him.

“On the ground, they would see an armyman’s face, at home it was a father’s face,” said Thomas, who received this year's Dronacharya Award, for Lifetime Achievement, from the President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee. “That’s the relationship we shared.”

That could also be the secret behind Thomas’ success as a coach, for he was the big reason behind some of India’s most successful athletes, including Olympian Anju Bobby George who brought the country its only World Championship medal, a long jump bronze in Paris, 2003.

After receiving the Dronacharya honour in New Delhi, Thomas opted for a train journey back home.

“On the way, I was felicitated at eight stations, mostly by my old students,” he said. “I have a great relationship with my former students. Nowadays, whenever students see their teachers, they run away…in my case, they will all come running to me. That’s the difference.”

Thomas, who is perhaps the first physical education teacher to be awarded the Dronacharya, virtually lived up to its legend. A true Dronacharya, there is a traditional guru-shishya relationship between Thomas and his trainees. His inspiration for this system came from his Army days and he felt that it was the best way to instil discipline in athletes.

“I trained the children, my wife cooked for them and on weekends, the students and I worked in the fields where we grew our own vegetables,” he said. “And for the last 13 years, I have not taken even a paisa from my students for training; most of them are from poor families.”

Funding his trainees

At one time, during his days at Koruthode’s CKM School, he revealed that up to 114 children stayed at his residence. Under his guidance, the CKM School topped the State Schools Athletics Championship for nearly 15 years. He now lives at Vannappuram.

“Now, at Vannapuram (SNM School), I have 93 children.”

Thomas used the pension which he received after his retirement from the Army to fund his trainees. “And then I got Rs. 5 lakh which came with the CNN-IBN channel’s Real Hero Award a few years ago, which also I used for my trainees. Now, I’ve got some more money from this award (Dronacharya) which I’ll use to sponsor more children.”

Thomas had served the Army for 16 years, first as an athlete and then as a coach.

“O.M. Nambiar, (A.K.) Kutty, (T.P.) Ouseph and myself… we were all coaches in the Services,” he revealed.

But he realised that coaching Services athletes was not his true calling. He was eager to train little kids. “I realised that if I were going to a school, I needed to do a coaches’ course, so I went to Gwalior and did a Masters in Physical Education. I wanted to coach children and that’s how I landed at the Koruthode school. And by God’s grace, I could coach athletes who have won four Arjuna Awards and one Khel Ratna (Anju Bobby George). And 800 children have got jobs through me.”

Thomas has a sharp eye to spot talent and knows which event suits an athlete best. Anju came in as a hurdler and a sprint relay runner but he advised her to try out long jump. Joseph Abraham, who won the 400 metres hurdles gold at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and Asian medallists C.S. Muraleedharan, Molly Chacko and Jincy Philip are some of the prominent trainees.

He also played a big role in luring Shiny Wilson, his niece, to athletics.

“I would say the first athlete I trained was my brother’s daughter, Shiny. I trained her when I was still in the military and she was a little girl. I brought her into this field. We were 12 of us at home, elder and younger brothers…so, whenever I came home I used to make their children run down the road and I used to give sweets to the winner. There was one girl who came in front of the boys and that was Shiny. And that’s how Shiny came to sport.”

Clearly, Thomas is a coach with the Midas touch.

Thomas’ Best

Anju Bobby George: 2003 World Championship bronze medallist,

Joseph Abraham: 2010 Asian Games gold medallist, 400m hurdles.

C.S. Muralidharan: 1989 Asian Championship silver medallist, 400m

Molly Chacko: 1991 Asian Championship silver medallist 3000m

Jincy Philip: 2002 Asian Games 4x400m relay gold medallist

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