The setting is idyllic, almost picture-perfect. About 40 kilometers away from the bustling city of Calicut, the St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School in Pullurampara is surrounded by scenic hills and fields. Students have access to two sprawling campuses, ideal weather all year round, and a pollution-free environment. The outdoors, quite naturally, are an attractive proposition, encouraging the students to engage in a range of sporting activity. For the last 18 years, the Malabar Sports Academy set up in conjunction with the school and located just a short distance away, has been shaping the best talent from the area.

The project was the brainchild of TT Kurian, a Math teacher with the school at the time. With students only able to compete at district-level meets until then, Kurian was keen to expose them to higher levels of competition. Conversations with friends and colleagues germinated the thought of starting an academy and despite multiple challenges, the doors of the facility were opened in 2003. While primarily meant for students from St. Joseph’s, the academy also allowed those from nearby districts to sign up after a scouting process.

Seven years later, Tomy Cherian, a resident of Pullurampara and a former student at the school was recruited by Kurian as the head coach. Cherian, who was working with the Kannur sports division at the time, made an immediate impact and athletes from the academy started to win medals at prestigious competitions, at both national and international level meets.

“When the academy started in 2003, I was supporting the coaches by advising them on how to conduct training sessions, giving them workout plans and insight in other areas that I had expertise in,” recalls Cherian. “Since coming on board as Head Coach in 2010, my idea was to instill a sense of ‘team’ within the athletes, so they would train in co-ordination to each other. We started regular coaching sessions for all events and included sports science in the training that helped reduce injuries and the athletes gained in strength and stamina. We were able to get more organised and make plans on the basis of the performances of our athletes.”

However, while the progress under Kurian and Cherian’s watch was significant, day-to-day operations at the academy were hampered due to a lack of adequate funds. Equipment was outdated, providing the required nutrition to athletes wasn’t always possible, and traveling to competitions was difficult. The introduction of the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) annual athletics competition in 2017-18, proved to be a game-changer for the facility, as the initiative included a monetary grant to the top-performing institutions, unlike other such competitions.

Over the next three years, several athletes from the academy earned podium places at the RFYS National Finals across disciplines in the sub-junior, junior, and senior categories, enabling the academy to become eligible for a grant in excess of 10 Lakh rupees. Jolly Thomas, the Principal of St. Joseph’s, immediately noticed the positive impact the additional funding had on the operations of the academy.

“The grant allowed us to make significant upgrades, including opening up a gymnasium for the students,” says Thomas. “We were able to provide healthy food and facilities such as accommodation for our students. The quality of training has noticeably improved as a result and the athletes have performed better. It also gets more students to develop an interest in athletics and sports in general.”

“We bought equipment such as Hurdles, Pole vault beds, and fibre poles with the grant,” adds Kurian. “With new quality equipment, our female athletes who jumped 2.70m in the Pole vault previously are now achieving 3.00m. Most of the old hurdles were made by ourselves, caused injuries, and were easily destroyed. Now we have good quality hurdles and with the upgradation in our gym equipment, we started participating in weightlifting competitions as well.”

The trophy cabinet at the academy now displays impressive achievements by its students. As many as 13 national level medals in disciplines ranging from High Jump, Long Jump, 400m, Javelin Throw, and 100 & 400m hurdles were won by athletes from the academy over the last year. Triple jumper Lizbeth Karoline and 100m hurdler Aparna Roy participated in the World School Youth meet in Tirsben, Turkey in 2016. Lizbeth has won three national-level Gold medals while Aparna has won a bronze at the Youth Asian Games in Bangkok in 2017 and a Silver at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu in 2019.

Others such as 18-year old Long Jumper Abhirami VM are making rapid strides forward, winning Gold at the Junior state competition in 2019 among other notable performances. High Jumper Roshna Augustine, who is also 18, came home with a silver medal from the junior nationals earlier this year and won the South zone competition with a personal best jump of 5.57 feet, also earlier this year. 400m runner Treesa Mathew secured a silver medal in the medley relay in the 2019 junior nationals. While improved training facilities at the academy has been an important aspect in their development, another invaluable factor in enhancing their development as an athlete has been participating in the RFYS National Finals in Mumbai over the years.

“The RFYS event was the first time I competed outside Kerala and it was an eye-opening experience for me,” recalls Roshna. “It felt like an international competition, with the facilities on offer and the quality of athletes I came up against. It made me all the more attracted to athletics. I am now driven to win an international medal and eventually participate at the Olympics.”

Quite clearly, from its humble beginnings, the Malabar Sports Academy and St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School combine has indeed come a long way, putting Pullurampara firmly on the national athletics map. Of the 50 athletes that represented Kerala at the Junior Nationals earlier this year, as many as 8 were from the academy. At the South Zone nationals, 18 athletes represented Kerala from the academy, and 14 returned with medals. Buoyed by consistent success, encouraged by a passionate and driven coaching team, and with access to much-improved training equipment, more athletes from tiny Pullurampara are primed to make a splash in the near future. The seeds sown in 2003 are starting to bear fruit.


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