R Muthukutti who won the Palk Bay Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) championship.

R Muthukutti, V Muthumariammal and R Ramalakshmi have never lived by the sea. Two out of them do not swim and have barely had the chance to encounter large water bodies.

A regular day in their life consists of a morning routine involving studying before heading to work at Loyal Mills, Kovilpatti. They piece together shirts, pants and other garments between 8.45am and 5.30pm. Right after, they head off to work on their language skills, brush up on home economics and play sports at the mill’s learning centre. This is besides the hours they put into educating themselves — passing their higher secondary and collegiate education.

Yet, on September 14 and 15, the three women participated in a 200-metre open sprint race at the Palk Bay Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) championship at Quest Academy in Ramanathapuram. They came back home sporting the three shiny medals. Gold, silver and bronze were theirs to have and hold despite just one week of training.

“We did not expect it,” says 19-year-old Muthukutti who won the top spot at the race. Until August, she did not swim and had never taken a dip in the deep blue sea surrounding Palk Bay. There was no need. She was instead focussed on building her profile in Silambam, a sport she had loved and practised at the National-level since school. She was also focussing on completing her second year in B.Com at Alagappa University.

“I had to begin working right after school. The situation at home demanded it. The programme post work allowed us to explore our interests. I was asked to practise and train others interested in Silambam and that was enjoyable,” she says.

One of the events of National Stand-up Paddling Championship being held off Pirappanvalasai beach near Uchipuli in Ramanathapuram district in 2022.

One of the events of National Stand-up Paddling Championship being held off Pirappanvalasai beach near Uchipuli in Ramanathapuram district in 2022.
| Photo Credit:
BALACHANDAR L

In August, she and four others including Muthumariammal and Ramalakshmi visited the Quest Academy as part of a skill exchange outreach programme by Loyal Mills and the adventure sports academy. “We taught them Silambam and they in turn taught us stand up paddling,” she says. Over just four days, the women learn to balance on the board and use their already available athletic abilities to swiftly emerge as strong, potential competitors in the open category of the stand up paddling competition.

Jehan Driver, coach presenter for the International Surfing Association and proprietor, Quest Academy, says that the three women were initially worried about entering the water, particularly when going deeper. However, they quickly learnt to get on the board and manoeuvre, building on skill and endurance. This subsequently helped them when they needed to use fast rapid strokes with good cadence and strength during the competition.

Ramalakshmi says that although they competed a month later without any expectations, she was elated to find her two colleagues and friends at the finish line, grabbing the top two spots. “I was a little scared in the beginning but playing sports, both Silambam and SUP, have given me confidence,” she says. Muthumariammal adds that she has enjoyed every bit of the competitive nature of sports and is looking forward to more training.

Vishala Ramaswami, executive director, Loyal Textiles, says that the organisation has been working on bringing unusual sports like fencing, SUP and taekwondo to the youth in tier-two and three cities who rarely have access to such facilities. “We want our programmes to help build self confidence and enrich young adulthood,” she says.

Muthukutti will soon begin training for the next tournament, competing in the national category. She will perfect the techniques that require her to balance and cut through the waves with skill and strength. Until then, her schedule at the mill will remain unchanged and her love for silambam will live on.