Joby Mathew was not upset. Although he had landed in New Delhi after a tiring 18-hour flight from Michigan, US, the world arm-wrestling champion was smiling to all those who paused to stare at him. In his rough and extremely calloused left hand were five gold medals that he had won, each bearing the inscription ‘World Dwarf Games 2013’.
But unlike the hearty, rapturous receptions accorded to successful cricketers or Olympic medal winners in India, there were no crowds or government officials waiting at the airport to welcome this 104cm-tall champion and his four teammates. In fact, except for a bunch of family members and friends, there were no officials to give Joby the hero’s welcome that he truly deserved – the officials, he was later told, were busy with India’s independence day celebrations so they could not come to receive him.
“I’m not upset that no sports official was there to welcome me,” says the 38-year-old, who also won gold at the World Arm Wrestling Championship in 2012 and has won 10 world medals in the past decade.
“I’m not disappointed,” he says. “It happens often – special needs athletes don’t often get the recognition they deserve from authorities. It doesn’t bother me.
“If I had allowed such things to worry me, I would never have reached where I am today.”
Joby may be the height of an average three-year-old, but in the eyes of his wife, Megha Pillai, and son, Jyothis Joby, he’s a giant.
Excited to see her champion husband return with a handful of medals, Megha bent down to hug Joby. “I’m so happy you are a champion again,’’ she said.
Their four-year-old son, who is already a couple of centimetres taller than his father, gave him a shy kiss before checking his medals.
“When I first met Joby some eight years ago, I never imagined that he would be able to participate and win medals in sporting competitions,” says Megha.
“Physically he was small but there was a certain positive attitude about him. He seemed so confident and charming and I was instantly attracted to him.”
Born with a rare condition called proximal femoral focal deficiency, which left him with deformed hips and stunted legs with no knee joints, Joby, from a village called Adukkom in the southern Indian state of Kerala, radiates optimism. He has overcome myriad challenges to become one of the top athletes in both normal and special needs categories.
He won gold in the 52kg able-bodied arm-wrestling category and silver in the 60kg disabled category at the 29th World Arm Wrestling Championship in Spain in 2008.
Joby, who works for the Bharat Petroleum Corporation as a sports trainer, is also the first wheel-chaired fencer in India, holds a brown belt in karate, is a member of the Kerala state parasailing and paragliding team and is a keen swimmer.
“My next dream is to climb Mount Everest,’’ says Joby, who has been diagnosed as 65 per cent orthopaedically challenged. “I know it’s going to be tough but I’m sure I can do it.’’
He has already enrolled in a four-month mountaineering school in Switzerland. “I will climb Mount Everest before 2020. That’s my goal.”
Megha, 30, has no doubt that her husband will be able to accomplish the feat. “He may be a dwarf, but he’s a giant amongst men,’’ she says.
Standing 165cm tall, Megha met Joby at a lecture on self-empowerment in Kerala in 2006.
“I was about to sign in the register when I found that somebody had already signed in the column next to my name,’’ she says. The organisers checked and found that the signature belonged to Joby, who had mistakenly signed in the wrong column.
Megha went into the hall and was introduced to Joby by an organiser.
“I was surprised [at how small he was],” she says. “But he was so nice and promptly apologised for the mix up. We got talking and soon realised we had a lot in common.”
When they left the lecture they did not expect to meet again. But then by sheer coincidence, they bumped into each other on three more occasions over the next two months and soon they began to develop feelings for each other.
“I had no idea that he had accomplished so much,’’ says Megha, a classically trained dancer, social activist and a research scholar in English literature.
“It was a friend who told me that he was an arm-wrestling champion. I was intrigued and very impressed that a man with a physical challenge could achieve so much. I also admired his positive attitude, intelligence and his determination. His so-called disability never bothered me.
“Then, on September 10, a few months after we met for the first time, Joby phoned me and, just like that, said, ‘I’d like to marry you’.
“I was overjoyed. By then I had fallen in love with him and wanted to marry him. His condition did not worry me. To me, Joby is not short. He is truly a giant among men.”
Since Joby is a Christian and Megha belongs to a traditional Hindu family where marriages are usually arranged and inter-caste marriages especially are frowned upon, it wasn’t easy to convince Megha’s father to give his blessing.
“Initially my dad, who owns a cloth store, was unwilling,” says Megha. But after he met Joby, who has a law degree and a post-graduate degree in economics, it all changed.
“Joby was able to win over my parents with his confidence and positive nature, and they promptly gave us the go-ahead to get married.”
The couple, who live in Kerala, married in November 2008 and had their son a year later. “If it was not for my supportive family – my parents as well as my wife – I would not have made it this far,’’ says Joby.
Born in 1976, Joby was two when he was diagnosed with the genetic condition after his parents took him for a check-up when they realised his legs were not developing.
“My father Mathew was a farmer, while my mother Aleykutty is a housewife. They tried hard to give me as good a life as they could afford,’’ says Joby, who has a younger sister Smitha Maria who is able-bodied.
His rare non-heriditary birth defect has no cure; one of the options for treatment is amputation and using prosthesis. But because the family was too poor to afford this treatment, Joby was forced to live with his condition.
“Early life was not easy,” says Joby. “Because I have no knees, walking was very difficult and up until almost age eight I used to crawl everywhere using my legs and arms.”
Life kept throwing challenges his way – when he was five he lost his father. “Ours was a poor family and we found it hard to survive after he died of a heart attack. But I guess because I was born challenged, I also craved challenges,” he laughs.
“My mother was the one who encouraged me. She used to work in the fields and earn enough to support me and my sister, who is now a nun.
“I was strong from a young age because I used to love climbing trees and swimming in the nearby river.
“I started developing my upper body to compensate for my stunted legs. I used to do pull-ups on tree branches, push-ups, I learnt to balance on one hand, then even on just my fingers.”
But simple things like going to school were giant hurdles for Joby. “My school was 12km away and because there were very few buses, I used to walk there every day.”
‘Walk’ was perhaps not exactly the right term. Joby used to crawl.
“During rains, I’d get drenched because I couldn’t hold an umbrella. The road was rocky and it used to hurt my hand, resulting in calluses,’’ he says, showing his rough left palm.
Joby’s parents took him to several doctors in their village, but they all had the same answer: there was no cure available for his condition apart from expensive surgery and prosthesis.
“At times I felt desperate to be normal,’’ he says. “But during my late teens when I accepted that nothing was going to change, I became a stronger person mentally and committed to changing my future.”
One of Joby’s passions was sport. “I used to plead with the school’s PE instructors to include me in as many sporting events as possible,” he says.
But while some teachers encouraged the boy, there were a few who told him to sit out while able-bodied children played sport.
“I had many painful experiences being left out of sports,” he says. “There were a few school mates who used to poke fun at my condition. But that never upset me. What did for a while was when some adults refused to take me seriously when I would tell them that I wanted to play sports. But those instances only made me more determined to achieve something. When I realised I’d never be able to play football or hockey, I looked for games where I could capitalise on my arms, because they were the strongest parts of my body.’’
While sitting out during sports classes, Joby would ask his friends to prove their strength on the table, and soon he became the champion arm-wrestler at school and then the district and state.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Joby was being offered help from Tamil film star Sarath Kumar to participate in the 2005 World Arm Wrestling Championships in Japan.
“He is such an amazing man,’’ says Joby. “He read an article about me looking for help to participate in the championship and immediately contacted me and offered to pay for my ticket and other expenses.”
Joby won three bronze medals – one against able-bodied competitors and two in the disabled category.
“I’ve worked hard for the past 22 years to develop my upper body and use it to my advantage,’’ he says. “Thankfully I’ve been successful.”
Joby hits the gym for an hour every day before swimming for around two hours in a local river.
But of course the going has not been easy: “I remember one of my first district competitions where I was very excited and confident I’d win, but I lost. It was a huge blow to my confidence.
“I remember going to the bathroom and crying. I was very angry with myself for losing, but then I realised the sadness wouldn’t get me anywhere and I decided to fight back. I worked hard and the next competition four months later, I entered and I won.’’
It’s these positive qualities that Megha says sets Joby apart from some other athletes. “He’s very positive and once he sets his mind on something, he will do all that he can to achieve it,” she says.
“My husband has never needed my help to achieve his dreams. He does that very well on his own and he does not need any kind of encouragement from me.
“But I am one of his most loyal supporters. As his wife I will do my part to help him achieve what he needs to achieve. He is a great motivator. It’s amazing how he maintains his enthusiasm.’’
Joby says that he could have done a lot more if only more help from officials was forthcoming.
“There have been several occasions when I’ve qualified for a competition but have not been able to participate due to lack of funds,” he says.
Joby has also been on several television programmes talking about achievements, including a show called Entertainment ke liye kuch bhi karega (Hindi for Will do anything for entertainment) where he arm-wrestled Bollywood stars including Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and director Farah Khan.
“Priyanka is such a lovely person. She is so sweet and asked me so many questions about my training and fitness regimen. Ranbir too is such a lovely man. Unfortunately, I was so excited to see them that I forgot to take any pictures!
“That programme was so popular. People began to recognise Megha and I when we stepped out in public.
“It’s nice to be recognised. In some ways it makes all the hard work you have done worth it.”
Joby’s hard work has also allowed him to enjoy a better quality of life. He now drives a specially converted car, which he can operate with only his hands.
“I love travelling and enjoy taking my family for outings,” he says.
Joby’s son Jyothis is fast becoming a champ in his own right. Although just getting ready for grade one, he’s already taking lessons in classical dance from his mother and also practises yoga.
“Jyothis is a very smart boy,” says Megha. “Just like his father, he’s very good at wrestling, dance and acrobatics also.’’
Megha and Jyothis never accompany Joby on his competition tours. “We prefer to stay at home and support him by watching his competitions on TV,’’ says Megha.
They spend lots of quality time together on weekends or when Joby is not busy training.
They go swimming together, visit beaches and go to the park and zoo as a family.
At the moment Joby is preparing for his Mount Everest trip, and getting ready to fly off to Switzerland for the course in mountaineering.
“It’s expensive,” says Joby. “The course costs Rs3.5 lakh (Dh20,709). Then there are other expenses.
“There are a few organisations who have promised to help me,” he says. “I wish the Indian government too comes forward to actively promote and encourage people like me to make a mark in the international arena and bring glory to our country.”
But Joby is determined. There hasn’t been one challenge yet that he has not defeated.
Megha, meanwhile, stands like a pillar of support behind her husband. “I am sure he will be able to climb to the summit of Mount Everest,” she says. “Once he sets his mind on something, he doesn’t rest until he achieves it.”
Little Jyothis chips in, “My dad is a champ. He will climb any mountain.”
Joby smiles and ruffles his son’s hair. “This is going to be harder than anything I’ve ever done in the past. I’ve always concentrated on sports that my body has been able to withstand, but this Everest trek will be something that my body will not necessarily be comfortable with. It’ll take immense strength, endurance and commitment. But I’m ready.’’