Joby Mathew has overcome a physical challenge and state apathy to win many a medal in different sports
The Mathews’ home in Aluva, a suburb of Kochi, is airy and spacious. Except for one cabinet fitted into the wall. It’s spilling over with medals, trophies and certificates. Nevertheless, Joby Mathew tries to fit in another five medals that he won at the World Dwarf Games last month.
As he places the medals, his well-built, powerful biceps look striking against his under-developed legs. But this bodily contrast has come to define 37-year-old Mathew’s story, which is as full of medals — 16 in all — as it is full of determination and courage.
Mathew, who is three feet and five inches tall, was born with a condition called proximal femoral focal deficiency, in which the legs fail to develop. His father passed away when he was five. His mother would carry him on her shoulders from their home, located on the top of a hill (in Adukkam village, Kottayam district), to a bus stop to go to school.
As he grew up, he began to go to school alone. “I would hop 14,500 times on my arms to cover some six kilometres between home and school. I also had to swim through eight streams,” he says. Such daily challenges, though, did not bother Mathew as much as not being able to play football. While other boys kicked and ran around the ball in the school playground, he watched helplessly from the sidelines. “While others walked, I crawled in the classroom,” says Mathew. But he decided to ignore what he did not have, and focus on what he had. He began to wrestle with his arms. “I tried arm wrestling in the classroom when I was in Class II.’’
As years passed, Mathew would arm-wrestle with his friends (none with a physical challenge), and would almost always defeat them. He took part in competitions at the school, district and state levels. But across these levels, Mathew faced challenges. When he was in college and went to a local gymnasium for body building, he got no attention. “Because I am dwarf, they gave me no training, leave alone special care. So, I started exercising by observing others.’’
In 1994, when Mathew was all of 18, he became the national champion in arm wrestling in the general category of contestants. Encouraged by his first-ever national feat, he set his eyes