73-year-old athlete Dr. Vasantha Samuel believes that determination opens doors
Most people would be laid up in bed if they got blood clots due to acute physical strain; most people would be too demoralised to represent the country after their spouse and mentor died an unnatural death; most of us give up when faced with red tape. But homeo practitioner Dr. Vasantha Samuel isn't like most people.
At the World Masters Athletics Championship in Miyazaki, Japan in 1993, Vasantha had high fever after completing her events. Yet, she filled in for an Indian runner in the relay for women above 45 years of age. “I would die at the finish line, but I wouldn't stop,” she says. India struck silver that day.
Never too late
Masters athletics, formerly called veterans athletics, are for people above the age of 35. Vasantha started, almost by accident, when she was turning 50. A family friend introduced her to masters athletics at a state meet here on March 8, 1986.
Vasantha had been out of touch with sports since her schooldays, in Breeks Memorial School, Udhagamandalam, when she played hockey. But, she participated in the 100m dash, shot put and, high jump. She finished second in all three events.
Then, age caught up. She developed blood clots in her thighs, but this did not come in her way of winning three silver medals in the national meet in Madurai, the following month. But mere silvers weren't enough.
She began training under her then 15-year-old son Dinesh to perfect her high jump. “I was 50 and he was 15, but he was such a hard task master,” she smiles. She won her first international gold medal, for high jump, at the Asian meet in Singapore in 1987.
The same year, at the world championships in Melbourne, it was decided that women would be allowed for pole vault and hammer throw. Vasantha had to miss the 1989 world championships due to lack of funding but went on to create history in 1991 at the world championships in Turku, Finland.
“Only aluminium poles were available here,” she says. Her husband cut a bamboo pole, sandpapered and flattened it. They painted it white, with tricolour bands in the middle. With help from former district collector M. Kalaivanan, she became the first Asian woman master pole-vaulter to reach the world championships.
Pole vault to fame
The international press was amazed and she was dubbed as “the daring Indian lady with a bamboo pole.” The tricolour pole is now an exhibit in Finland, with Vasantha's name and country etched on it in gold, she adds. She came fifth in Finland and won the US Presidential Sports Award, usually reserved for US nationals, from George Bush Sr. in 1992.
The Finnish government presented two fibre poles, custom made for Vasantha who only weighed 38kg back then.
“The Delhi customs asked me to pay duty on the poles. I refused saying ‘it's a gift and, I would rather be arrested than give them to you',” she says.
After being detained at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi for three hours, she was finally let off with her poles when one of the customs men, who was also a sportsman, asked his colleagues to let her be as the government had not given anything to her when she left for Finland.
An Indian NRI at Chennai Airport once gave her US$100 to spend at the international meet in Singapore in 1998.
She got her first refund from the Sports Authority of India only in 2009, for the Asian Championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she won a gold and a couple of bronzes. Her sports have only been possible with donations from the State Bank, Texmo, Rotary and a few textile firms.
“I got a very discouraging reply from a union sports minister in the late 80s, when I wrote to her for support for veterans' sports,” she says.
“The minister said that veterans sports wasn't sports. I thought that was a sad apology of a response, and invited her to a meet to see why she was wrong,” adds the tenacious doctor.
But there have been pro-active individuals, like Kalaivanan, IAS, who facilitated her pursuit of excellence.
District sports officers R. Raja Mahendran and Thomas Joseph, who let her use the Nehru Stadium whenever she needs to and, the Stanes School where she trained for high jump, were some of the others who helped.
“Sports is very difficult for women, if their husbands don't support them,” says Vasantha, whose husband passed away in a scooter accident in July, 2000.
Keeping the faith
In November, that same year she won two golds and a silver at the Asian meet in Bangalore.
She bid farewell to pole vault, which her husband mentored her in, after winning a bronze in the world championships in Brisbane in 2001.
She continues to win laurels for the country in high jump, triple jump and long jump and is currently looking for sponsorship for taking part in the Asian meet in Kuala Lumpur, coming December.
You can contact her on 9944932653 on any day of the week. Just don't call from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Even superheroes need to rest.