After losing coach to Covid, pole vaulter Siva pays tribute with National Games gold and record

When Siva Subramani, the country’s best vaulter by a distance, lost his former coach Don Wilcox to Covid in May last year, he thought his career in athletics was all but over. The pain of losing Wilcox, a retired customs officer whom Siva calls his backbone, was hard to process for the 26-year-old. He not only lost his focus but also his will to pursue the sport.

“He was my backbone. What will you do if you lose yours?” asks Siva. But the Tamil Nadu athlete knew he had to pick himself up and continue vaulting. He could not let his late coach down.

So, it was only apt that after rewriting his own national record by clearing the bar at 5.31m and taking home the gold at the ongoing National Games, Siva dedicated his medal to his former coach. He clenched the medal in his hands as his eyes went moist while saying, “It’s for him. I really miss him.”

Siva has now broken the national record four times since first disturbing it in 2017.

Siva Subramani (Courtesy: Twitter)

“After he passed away, I just wanted to quit the sport. I was distraught. He was my mentor, coach and backbone. He is the reason why I am a sportsperson today. I owe him everything,” says Siva after his victory on Monday when the rest of the field couldn’t even breach the 5m mark.

Siva’s first interaction with Wilcox almost seems like destiny. Coach Don was heading to the Poondi Madha (Mother Mary) shrine in Thanjavur in his car when he glanced at Siva in Kallanai, which is en route to the church.

“I was just taking a stroll with my friends and he saw me. He stopped and asked me if I was a pole vaulter. I recognised him instantly since my brother was a vaulter and I knew about coach Wilcox. He had probably seen my videos on social media,” recalls Siva who was 17 back then.

Siva told Wilcox that he would like to train under him and the latter instantly agreed. “He asked me to pack my bags and come to Chennai. He not only trained me for free but took care of me and even gave me money for my expenses there,” says Siva.

In a way, Wilcox adopted the teenager. He got Siva enrolled at the prestigious Loyola College and even paid his first-year college fees. In the second year, Siva broke the junior national record at the junior Fed Cup, earning a scholarship at the college.

From water to land

Before beginning his tryst with pole vaulting, Siva was a promising swimmer. With no swimming pools in his village, the youngster honed his skills at the Kallanai dam in Trichy district of Tamil Nadu. One day, Tamilarasan, his elder brother, took Siva to a college meet he was taking part in. “It was like magic. The way he (Tamilarasan) leapt over that bar was mesmerising. At that very moment, I decided that I want to take up vaulting,” Siva recalls.

The two-time national open champion is eyeing the distant Asian Games qualification mark of 5.55m next. Siva admits that there is a huge gulf between Indian and international vaulters but wants to bridge it. “I want to break that barrier and create history,” he says.

After Wilcox passed away, his son Gerald, who is hearing- and speech-impaired, took the mantle to train his father’s wards, including Siva. “Coach Gerald follows the same training and workout plan set by Don sir. We are slowly figuring out my flaws and it’s going well,” says Siva.

Communicating with Gerald has never been a tough task for Siva since Wilcox had already trained him in understanding a lot of gestures. “I have spent a long time with coach Gerald so we know what each other is thinking. He is good at lipreading and I understand his actions clearly. It is not difficult because even coach Don used to use a lot of gestures and actions during training. Because at times during competitions, the coach sits a little far from where yelling is not practical. So, we understand using actions and gestures,” says Siva who said he would video call Gerald later to show his medal.

But there is no doubt who would have been the proudest to see Siva’s latest medal. “If Don sir was there, I would have been on a different level. There are a lot of things I miss, but the most would be his scolding. Training le nalla thithuvaru (During training, he used to give me an earful). It helped me a lot to improve. I miss that so much,” says Shiva holding his tears back.

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