Komathi Jayaraman: Race-walking champion at 56 years

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Suresh Nair

ARMS pumping, hips swiveling, Komathi Jayaraman powers down the straightaway of Woodlands Primary School in the northern heartlands of Woodlands. This is no leisurely stroll for the 56-year-old mother of three.

She is a race-walking champion who won a gold medal at the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Daegu, South Korea, in March this year. And mind you, she’s in a demanding and highly technical sport where she has been a late-starter and seriously engaged in this activity for the past 16 years.

“Call it crazy, but race-walking keeps me going. It is something I look forward to after a hard day’s work in school,” says Komathi, a sexy-looking mother of three teenage lads, aged 29 to 22. “I train with my buddy (Kowsula Kaur, a racewalker).  It is important to have a buddy as we motivate each other to do better and normally share our home and work issues as we pump the road or tracks. It is like washing your stress away as you sweat.”

In race walking, Komathi discovered not only a competitive sport, but also a vigorous physical activity that burns more calories than even brisk walking. According to a study published in the Harvard Health Publications newsletter, a 155-pound individual will burn 242 calories in 30 minutes of race walking, in comparison with about 149 calories burned by walking briskly for the same period of time.

And race walking is lower impact than running. “I think it’s less pounding on the knees and ankles,” says the teacher. “Race walking is not just walking fast down the hall. You need to learn how to do it right.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks after the gold-medal feat in the 10,000m team event and a bronze medal in the individual 3,000m race-walking event. She says: “It’s an unbelievable feeling when “Majullah Singapura” was played during the prize giving ceremony. I was in tears and it was a moment of great pride and satisfaction in my life, for bringing glory to our nation through sports and I truly felt a great sense of achievement.”

“Never had I dreamt that this race-walking journey that I took only after I turned 40 would bring me this far!”

LATE STARTER

A self-confessed belated starter on the international stage, Komathi recollects that the first major event she donned the red-white Singapore jersey was the International 24 hour Race Walking Championship in 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, where the Singapore quartet won a bronze medal. Incredibly, she walked 100km in 24 hours!

“That distance was something I never imagined I could conquer. I moved on to participate and have achieved podium finishes in various international 12-hour walks since then and I have also participated in three Asian Master Athletics Championships and clinched silver in all three of them,” she says proudly.

“In Singapore, I have participated in most full marathons. I race walked along with marathon runners  finishing in decent time I’m often teased by fellow runners who wonder how I can walk faster than some of their running pace!”

During her schooldays at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, she was active only at competitive hockey. And coming from a conservative south Indian family didn’t help as her mother frowned at her wearing shorts and T-shirts.

NO SPORTS AGENDA

She explains: “Sports was never in the agenda nor did they (family) encourage it all. My mother, who lives with us, has still not come to terms that I’m still participating in competition and train two hours per day. She neither encourages nor discourages me.

“I’m always in short and t-shirts even at home since my school days.  It is a comfortable wear. It is only on odd days that I wear a dress or skirt at home and everyone assumes I am going out somewhere special! They are so used to seeing me in shorts and T-shirts. Hence, I have never felt uneasy in shorts or tights both at home and during my track and road trainings.”

Komathi, a senior teacher for 32 years in her position as Head Aesthetics at Woodlands Primary School, feels blessed to have a sports-loving 60-year-old husband, Jayaraman Thirumalai, a Senior Parts manager at Eurocars, and three lads, Darshananth, 29, Logesh, 28, and Didiyanthi, 22.

“My sons have been national middle distance athletes during their school days,” she says proudly. “They have been my true inspiration as they were both middle distance runners and participated in many races during their school days. I put on my running shoes at the age of 40 when they were in their teens.”

She believes Singapore needs to seriously nurture a sporting culture to inspire a further generation of younger and senior athletes.

Komathi explains: “(Joseph) Schooling’s victory at the Rio Olympic Games is indicative that, as a nation we value sporting heroes. We know the significance of an achievement, appreciate it and treasure it. With excellent sports facilities and infrastructure, someday soon we will be able to boast that Singapore has a “sporting culture”.”

But in order for that to happen, the government must give emphasis to sports along with academic excellence. She says: “We must have reliable sports clubs and organisation to absorb these talents once they finish school and join the work force.

“We must develop our aspiring sportsmen to have not only the physical but also the mental strength to develop their talent and balance their work and family in time to come. We must have a nation of athletes who will pursue the sports amidst all the challenges and adversities they may face and they must move in their middle age to join the master’s category and keep the fire burning and inspire the young in time to come

ADVICE FOR SENIORS

For the seniors, she wants to advocate race-walking or running for a longer and healthier life.  She says: “Did you know that runners have a lower chance of suffering from clinical depression than physically inactive people?  As you run and improve the strength of your heart and the viscosity of your blood your brain benefits from improved circulation.  People who are physically active can ward off cognitive declines too.

“Runners sleep better. While many older adults experience poor sleep cycles, people who run tend to sleep sounder and wake up more refreshed than their lethargic counterparts.  Again we see running is a wonderful, natural substitute for potentially harmful pharmaceuticals.  If you hit the track, you’ll hit the sack without sleeping pills or counting sheep.”

To Singapore Athletics (SA), much in the recent news for the wrong reasons, she hopes the national body will wake up. She says: “The SA will and must always be the core and anchor for Singapore Athletics. But in order for us to succeed, stakeholders – athletes, coaches, parents, schools, the media, virtually all members of the public – have vitally important roles to play as well.

“We cannot be simply blaming the SA because every athlete, I believe has to take responsibility for his sporting career and must source for sponsorship, support and guidance to perform his/her best and work diplomatically with the sports organisation and garner support.”

Komathi also wishes that schools take a “holistic approach towards education and renewed emphasis in promoting fitness”. She explains: “Primary and secondary schools have been promoting sports amongst the young. Doing well in the SEA Games and recent Olympic Games, parents are giving some attention to sports. Yes, ActiveSG, on its part, has been promoting sports among the young and old, too.”

And if she could ever turn the clock back, she would have started her race-walking obsession at 14 years and not 40!

Her last sporting words sums up her ultra-fanatical race-walking passion: “Race walking provides many of the benefits of running without the pounding on your body. Race walking not only provides a challenge, it also is physically intense as you improve in form and speed providing a great cardio workout.

“If you have not been able to run for whatever reason but you are looking for something more challenging for your fitness than just a walk in the park, consider race walking.”

Indeed, Komathi ranks as an extraordinary Made-in-Singapore mother and teacher, who never fears ageing. As she daringly says: “Call it crazy, but race-walking keeps me going. It is something I look forward to after a hard day’s work in school.”