Para athletes coach proving critics wrong, one day at a time

R Jeganathan (left) with national para speedster Ridzuan Puzi.

KUALA LUMPUR: R Jeganathan is known for discovering hidden gems like national para speedster Ridzuan Puzi, but his initial move from coaching able-bodied athletes was met with scepticism and ridicule.

Eighteen years ago, coaching para athletes was the last thing on his mind. At the time, he was in charge of the national athletics team which included M Ramachandran, Malaysia’s elite long-distance runner and eight-time SEA Games gold medalist.

“I was coaching able-bodied athletes from 1981 to 2001,” he said.

“When Malaysia hosted its first Para Games in Kuala Lumpur in 2001, I was asked if I wanted to coach the para-athletes track and field team.”

At first, he said, he was reluctant as it meant he would have to start from scratch.

“But my wife encouraged me,” he said. “She told me that these are God’s children and I must help them.”

With these words ringing in his mind, he took up the offer. In the beginning, it was hard.

“A lot of people teased me and even called me the ‘disabled coach,” he recalled.

“But I am glad to have proven them wrong. I am still learning from these athletes every day as we prepare for the 2020 Paralympics.”

Now, Jeganathan heads the national para-athlete track and field team which comprises 21 athletes and four coaches.

The athletes under his care include 2016 Paralympic gold medalists Abdul Latif Romly (long jump) and Ziyad Zolkeffli (shot-put), and 2017 Para Games winners Muhammad Afiq Ali Hanafiah (100m) and Muhammad Ashraf Muhammad Haisham (800m).

Now, his focus is on Ridzuan, who sprinted to a new world record of 11.87 seconds at the 100m T36 (cerebral palsy) event en route to gold at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta last year.

In recognition of his achievement, Ridzuan was named Asia’s Best Male Para Athlete 2018 on Feb 6. The first person he called after receiving the award was Jeganathan.

“I am really proud of him,” Jeganathan told FMT. “But this is only the beginning of his achievements. We are preparing for the Paralympic Games in 2020, where the goal is for him to win gold in the 100m T36 event.”

He said Ridzuan, fondly known as “Dik Wan”, had come a long way since they first met.

“He was a raw kid, a totally different person when I started coaching him 11 years ago.

“His strength, agility and conditioning have improved tremendously.”

At the Asian Para Games in Jakarta, Ridzuan also triumphed in the T36 400m and long jump events. He is also the Paralympics Games 100m T36 defending champion.

For now, Jeganathan and Ridzuan are preparing for the World Para Athletics Championship in Dubai this November. That, Jeganathan told FMT, is the biggest tournament this year.

“There is also a meet in Ipoh this month, followed by Singapore in March and later in Berlin or France.

“I am preparing a special programme that focuses on intensity and recovery,” he added. “Age is catching up with him, and I can’t train him like a young kid anymore.

“There are a lot of disabled athletes in Malaysia, and I want to tell them that athletics can be a pathway to a job and building their career in sports.

“We need more young blood, that’s for sure.”