A tearful story: Who is ‘Papathi Akka’, the woman behind ‘Golden Girl’ Gomathi’s success?
“After Gomathi won the gold medal, I was the first person she called over the phone. She spoke with tears. I spoke crying too. She said, “You are the reason for my victory, akka’. I said in reply, ‘No, don’t say that. It is your hard work and belief that has bore fruit’,” reminisced Papathi Akka.
‘Golden Girl’ Gomathi Marimuthu created history and made India proud by winning gold in the 800 m sprint at the Asian Athletics Championships 2019. Shortly after her victory, in her first interview to the press, she said that her victory was because of ‘Papathi Akka’.
Papathi a.k.a Francis Mary is a Traffic police sub-inspector in Mylapore, Chennai. An athlete herself once, Francis Mary stands amidst the sound of traffic and the constant chatter over her police walkie-talkie.
“After Gomathi won the gold medal, I was the first person she called over the phone. She spoke with tears. I spoke crying too. She said, “You are the reason for my victory, akka’. I said in reply, ‘No, don’t say that. It is your hard work and belief that has bore fruit’,” reminisced Mary.
It was in 2009, that she first got to know Gomathi. During Gomathi’s final year at college, Mary met her as a fellow competitor in an athletic event.
“When she turned up for the event, Gomathi kept to herself and appeared to be naïve and innocent in my eyes. But, she was also hard working and disciplined. I instantly liked her a lot,” she said.
Mary said that Gomathi was so shy that she wouldn’t even speak up to the judges and organizers for her rights during the event then.
“I used to help her and told her that she should speak up for herself. Whenever she felt discouraged, I wanted to cheer her up. I cared for her a lot and we became good friends. Our friendship gradually blossomed,” said the traffic sub-inspector smiling.
Mary’s native village is Keeranur in Pudukottai district. Her father used to work at a rice mill while her Mother did coolie work.
“Though financially we were struggling, I was never kept away from my dream. From childhood, it was my dream to achieve in sports. My father used to tell me that one day I should become like PT Usha,” she said.
However, sadly circumstances shattered Mary’s dreams. She sustained an injury during an accident. That put her dreams of being an athlete in jeopardy. Now, she is serving the society and diligently taking care of her family.
“During late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s reign, I got my job through sports quota. I got married and had children. When my son was 7 years old, I won a gold medal at an athletic meet,” said Papathi Akka with a grin.
She has trained under many coaches like Sekar, Loganathan, Latha, Nagaraj, and even her brother Francis Sagayaraj. To this day, she regrets that she could not give her undivided attention to her sports career.
“Just like how my dream was killed, I almost saw Gomathi’s dream shatter in front of my eyes. But, I couldn’t let it go. I didn’t want Gomathi to give up,” revealed Mary.
Two years ago, Gomathi suffered severe injuries in an accident. It was Papathi Akka who took her to Chennai and advised her to take proper treatment. Immediately after the accident, Gomathi’s name was removed from the list of athletes representing India. The coach at that time was Russian. Mary said that as he didn’t know Gomathi that well, he removed the name without a second thought.
“Gomathi thought it was all over and wanted to give up on her dream. It really hurt her. She cried a lot. I tried to keep her spirits up and consoled her. I introduced her to my brother who is a coach. She trained under him for a few months. I always believed she’ll win gold,” she said.
Gomathi’s native village is close to Mary’s, and Gomathi’s mother used to go there for coolie work. Mary got to know her really well too when she came to see Gomathi train.
“I wanted to help as much as I could because a girl from our region was aspiring to win medals in national tournaments. Gomathi’s father was everything to her. When he died, I decided to be by her side and support her,” said Papathi Akka with a sad smile.
Mary wants Gomathi’s story to help more women come out of their shells.
“The gold medal that Gomathi has won is an inspiration for all women. I’m now ready to run alongside Gomathi,” she added with hope glistening in her eyes.